The discounted packets of spices seemed like a lip-smacking offer. But the villagers of Baramba had no idea what was actually cooking. In exchange for the goodies, they were giving out personal data that could be used as an ingredient to frizzle up an election win.
This was the first time that Tripura Dehury, a local businessman trying to find a way into politics, had visited the village in Cuttack district of western Odisha.
Dehury, 44, along with his entourage, made an entry into the village in a grand SUV and took the stage.
Almost 250 men, women and children were seated on tarpaulin sheets, unaware that it was going to be a political event. A Delhi-based private research firm, Next Vision, had lured villagers with free lunch and the bargain masala packets. The event was organised in a local temple compound.
The programme began with the firm addressing the villagers on problems they had been facing such as lack of primary healthcare, dilapidated schools, and shortage of street lights, among others. Every issue was shortlisted after weeks of survey in the village itself, of which none of the residents had any clue.
Sitting next to Dehury, Rajendra Parida, executive director of Next Vision, a private firm, began with a brief introduction.
“The discounted packets of spices and the street lights that you see in the village have all been possible because of Tripura Dehury. He has helped us with the finances and encouraged us to work in your area. If you want more development in the village, you will have to support him,” said Parida, setting the tone before handing over the microphone to Dehury amid loud claps.
Dehury spoke exactly what Next Vision had briefed him about, with an underlying pitch for votes.
“I have been traveling to every village in the district to understand the problems of my people. I will help you clean your ponds, ensure electricity, station a fully functioning primary healthcare service and improve the standards of education,” he promised.
Dehury is a poll aspirant, seeking nomination to contest Assembly elections on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket.
A peek into Dehury’s modus operandi divulges a unique combination of marketing, data mining and micro-messaging. His operations reveal that even in remote villages, with low or no Internet penetration, a complex blend of human and artificial intelligence is being harnessed to influence voters.
Dehury, with the aim to win in the 2019 state elections, hired Next Vision earlier this year.
A step-by-step guide of how Next Vision operates explains why:
The firm first approaches an FMCG company in Odisha. They strike a deal in which the company would help them increase their sales exponentially through door-to-door vending of their products at discounted rates in villages.
Next, the firm transports these products to rural areas it wishes to operate in. Here, they hire a dozen villagers and give them just two tasks. One, to go to each household and provide a discounted packet, and two, get names and phone numbers in return for the packets sold.
In the process, the firm ends up collecting thousands of phone numbers. The contact details are sent to a back-end team in Bhubaneswar which are then used to enquire about challenges that the villagers have been facing and require attention.
Once the most prominent and serious problem in a particular village is identified, the firm approaches all political candidates in the area, promising spike in popularity, translating into votes, if a partnership is struck with the company.
After the deal with a candidate materialises, the firm revisits these villages and solves the problem, say installing street lights.
Having done that, it then calls for a village gathering, or gram sabha, where the political candidate is introduced for the first time and the entire credit for free and discounted products along with new street lights is transferred to the hard work and initiatives by the aspirant.
Next Vision carried out the same process in nine districts of Odisha through political candidates.
In Baramba, along with Dehury’s introduction to the villagers, discount coupons were distributed. The last page of this booklet had his face printed on it with a small description. By the time lunch was served, the entire conversation focused on Dehury.