India Must Beware Of Overt Or Covert Interference In Its Electoral Process

A foreign country’s interference in the national elections of another country is very unnerving as was the case in the 2016 US Presidential elections. The redacted Robert Muller report on the elections was released in the United States on Friday.

The important outcome of the ambivalent stand taken in the report is not that President Trump may be able to scrape through unscathed but the shocking details of how Russian attempts were made to influence the electoral process in USA.

The Congress may still decide to impeach the President on the count of obstructing investigation but it will depend on whether they want to go through that difficult and arduous path or wait for the next Presidential elections.
As for the background of the Muller Report, it was the result of a two- year investigation by Robert Muller, a former Director of FBI into allegations that American President Donald Trump and his Republican party campaign managers conspired with Russian agents to influence the US election in the Republican candidate’s favour and against Democratic candidates led by Hillary Clinton.

US intelligence agencies suspected a state-authorised campaign of cyber attacks and fake news stories planted on social media against Hillary Clinton. Trump called it “the greatest political witch hunt in history”.

It all began when FBI learnt that a foreign government representative had got in touch with George Papdopoulos, Foreign Policy advisor of the Trump camp and indicated that the Russian government could assist their campaign through the anonymous release of information, which is damaging to the Democratic Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. That information prompted FBI to open investigation into whether individuals associated with the Trump campaign were co-ordinating with the Russian government in its interference activities.

After election in December 2016, USA imposed sanctions on Russia for interfering in its electoral process.

The Muller report established that Russia interfered in the 2016 Presidential elections by carrying out a social media campaign that favoured Trump and denigrated Hillary Clinton.
A Russian intelligence service conducted computer intrusion operations against entities, employees and volunteers working on the Clinton campaign and then released the stolen documents. The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.
It also established that it was a win-win situation for both. While the Russian government perceived it would benefit from Trump’s campaign, it hoped to benefit electorally by releasing stolen material released about Clinton’s campaign.

Internet Research Agency (IRA) carried out the social media campaign based in St Petersburg, Russia. IRA sent employees to the United States on an intelligence-gathering mission with instructions. IRA later used social media accounts and interest groups to sow a discord in the US political system through what it termed “information warfare”. The campaign evolved from a generalized programme designed in 2014 and 2015 to undermine the US electoral system, to a targeted operation that by early 2016, favoured Trump against Clinton.

Political advertisements were purchased on social media in the names of US persons and entities as well as staging of political rallies in the United States. To organise those rallies, IRA employees posed as US grassroots entities and persons and made contact with Trump supporters and Trump campaign officials in the United States.

However in its conclusion, the Muller Report does not charge the Trump campaign by saying that he had not been able to “establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or co-ordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Interestingly, the report took the plea that both the words, “co-ordinate” and “collusion” do not have a settled definition in federal criminal law. The Trump camp obviously has taken this as their victory, while the Democrats feel that they still have much ammunition in the Report to target the President.

But for India, presently undergoing elections, there are lessons to learn from the Muller Report, particularly how one country can systematically work towards changing the electoral results of another.
Though foreign countries may have their interest in India and may not be averse to trying to politically influence political parties or politicians within the country, as many people have suspected from time-to-time, there has been no instance of any blatant meddling by foreigners into the whole election process in India.

The recent incident of Bangladeshi actors campaigning in India for candidates in West Bengal is a rare incident and clearly goes to show that given a chance, the candidate or political party will go to any extent to get support even if there is a glimmer of hope that it will lead to more votes in favour of the candidate.

It was a diplomatic fiasco embarrassing both Bangladesh and India. India of course did the right thing by sending both the actors Feroze Ahmed and Ghazi Abdul Noor packing as soon the matter came to their knowledge.

Bangladesh too has called it an “unfortunate” incident though it felt India’s reaction was harsh.
But it is good that India has nipped the trend in the bud because there is no stopping it. Next you may have some other party candidate getting Robert Downey Jr , Angeline Jolie or Tom Cruise for campaigning (not that these actors will ever agree).

Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has said it was tragic that actor Ferdous Ahmed got involved in the domestic politics of another country. Taking the matter very seriously, the Indian government has not only cancelled his visa but blacklisted the actor, making his return remote.

The actor has since apologised for his mistake and said that what he did was out of love for the people of West Bengal.

There is a also another question, which we must consider, whether statements on possible election outcomes in one country made by another may be considered as interference in the electoral process.

At election time such statements are likely to have tremendous popular impact and even though there may not be any legal bar but it cannot be denied that they may be construed as interference by some.

It is in this category that the recent comment of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan may be placed. He said, “If BJP wins, some kind of a settlement in Kashmir could be reached.
The reason being that it is only right wing organisation like the BJP, which could take such a decision, “other parties would be afraid of right-wing backlash in case of a settlement on the Kashmir issue.”

With the kind of relation Pakistan has with India, its Prime Minister making a statement in favour of one particular party in India and that too on the controversial and sensitive subject of Kashmir, particularly when elections are being held in India, cannot be said to have been done casually without keeping its fallout on Indian elections in mind.

India’s political class as well as its intelligence wing must keep the country’s national interest uppermost in their minds and should never allow any kind of interference, overt or covert in its electoral process, which is the pivot of our democracy.

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