Election season: India

India election: BJP complains of 'Chinese interference'

A clutch of social media advertisements, including one calling on Indian voters to oust the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and support the Communist Party of India (Marxist), forms the basis of a BJP complaint claiming "Chinese interference" in the ongoing Indian parliamentary elections.

These ads were featured on the Facebook page of Helo, a popular Chinese social media app in India.

Facebook recently took down 11,000 ads posted by Helo because there was no disclosure on who paid for them. A voluntary code of ethics adopted by social media firms in India ahead of the elections promises to facilitate transparency in paid political ads.

Helo is owned by ByteDance, a company that also owns the video-sharing app TikTok, which has also generated controversy.

The complaint to the Election Commission of India was lodged by the Delhi unit of the BJP on March 29.

Mr Neelkant Bakshi, who handles media, social media and IT for the Delhi unit of the BJP, told The Straits Times that Helo or somebody else used the platform "to create and post some content which promoted hatred and was quite dangerous". "It is unfair for any social media platform to promote offensive content against one political party on their official Facebook page."

Mr Bakshi said he has no proof to suggest China could be behind the ads, but he brought up the possibility of a "conspiracy" between entities in India and China.

 
 
 

"Maybe the Congress is involved," he said. "They, unlike the BJP, are new to social media. They are immature and have been trying to do everything possible in the world just to stop Mr (Narendra) Modi from becoming the prime minister again," he added.

Mr Bakshi claimed the Congress party may have hired "people in the Gulf, people in China" to generate fake content to support its campaign and influence voters. "That an app being run from China is involved is a matter of concern and it should be probed."

He also said "some people from the Gulf" approached BJP representatives a fortnight ago, claiming they were working with the Congress party to mobilise political opinion and could do the same for the BJP. The offer was declined, said Mr Bakshi.

The complaint calls on the Election Commission of India to take note of the problem and control it.

China watcher and professor at the Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University Swaran Singh discounted the possibility of the Chinese state interfering in Indian elections, especially against the BJP.

"Why would they work against Narendra Modi, when he and Xi Jinping have struck a good rapport?" he said, referring to the Chinese President. "When it comes to engaging with India, it does not suit China's interest to have a federal coalition government possibly made up of a dozen parties."

After the ads were taken down by Facebook, Helo said it will stay away from political ads this election season.

"These ads were all generated prior to the declaration of general elections by the Election Commission of India and the enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct," the firm told ThePrint, an Indian online news publication, in a statement.

ByteDance has been having a tough time in India lately. Its video-sharing app, TikTok, which has been downloaded more than 240 million times, has come under growing scrutiny.

Last week, a court in Tamil Nadu ordered the government to ban the app, saying it encourages pornography and made its child users vulnerable to sexual predators. The firm is contesting the judgment in India's Supreme Court.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2019, with the headline 'BJP complains of 'Chinese interference''. Print Edition | Subscribe