Insights about public policy and international affairs by Shivam Shankar Singh

Shivam Shankar Singh is a data analyst, campaign consultant and author of the bestsellers, The Art of Conjuring Alternate Realities (HarperCollins, 2021) and How to Win an Indian Election (Penguin, 2019). He started out in politics as a Legislative Assistant to a Member of Parliament (LAMP) Fellow and went on to witness the process of conjuring political realities while managing data analytics for some of India’s largest political parties.

He is a panelist on national television and writes for several news publications on data and politics. He graduated from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor with a Bachelor of Science in Economics and is a 2021-22 Schwarzman Scholar.

Can you tell us more about your experience at the LAMP fellowship?

The LAMP Fellowship is one of the best opportunities in India to learn about the world of policy and politics available to a young person. I credit a lot of my early learning about how policies are made in the country to the fellowship. It places you directly at the heart of India’s parliamentary processes by attaching you with a Member of Parliament for 11 months. At my MPs office I was responsible for drafting parliamentary interventions and keeping my MP informed on all proceedings of the house. I drafted parliamentary questions, wrote drafts for raising matters of public importance within the house and summarized bills for the MP. I was also involved in initiatives outside parliament, working with NGOs and organizations on diverse issues like population stabilization, sustainable development, organic agriculture and many other areas that my MP was interested in. This broad based introduction to the world of policy, and just learning from an MP about how India’s politics works is invaluable.

What is the book – “The Art of Conjuring Alternate Realities” about?

The Art of Conjuring Alternate Realities at its heart is about how power in the modern world is determined by an entity’s ability to shape your information environment. Your perception of what the world is like is dependent in large part on the information you receive, and if I can control that, then I can in essence control your thoughts and actions. The book details the techniques that are used by politicians, scammers, intelligence agencies and other entities to shape your thoughts using information warfare techniques. My co-author on the book, Anand V., is a cybersecurity expert, and while discussing the techniques politicians were using in India to shape political narratives we realised that a lot of these techniques were actually sophisticated information warfare concepts used by intelligence agencies globally – and that was when we decided to write the book – detailing the techniques, and providing a roadmap for countering them.

What role can India play in the Russia – Ukraine crisis towards peace building?

There’s a very limited role for India to play here at this late stage. The crisis likely will be solved by a bilateral peace deal between Ukraine and Russia, and the best India can hope to do is to hasten this process by increasing the cost on Russia for delaying negotiations. India is a major buyer of Russian military equipment and buys some of its petroleum from Russia, it can in theory use both to pressure Russia into an early resolution, but it harms India’s own interests too with very limited gains for the nation. That basically means that India will remain neutral in the conflict, and continue to maintain the status-quo with all sides. 

Do you think the US and Russia are treated differently by global media while reporting? How?

The US and Russia definitely get different treatments in global media reportage, with the US getting a lot less criticism for the foreign interventions it has engaged in. This isn’t solely a consequence of media bias though, the US has a much stronger information campaign before it has engaged in many of its foreign interventions, like the prevalence of the narrative that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) before US forces landed in Iraq. The media definitely amplifies US narratives, but it at least in part seems to do so because the US is good at crafting them for its intended audience. Russia on the other hand does win over the information space in some regions, but pro-Russian narratives rarely get traction and support in much of the western world. This is especially true of the current Ukraine crisis since Ukraine itself is seen as a western nation, thus garnering greater sympathy from the media and from western audiences than say the victims of conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Your book “How to Win an Indian Election” was a huge success. Can you tell us five key takeaway points for readers of the book?

Yes, the book became an instant bestseller and got a lot of support from people. I largely credit that to the stories and information in the book really resonating with readers. Many people observe or feel things about politics, but they rarely get an inside peek into why political parties make certain choices or why campaigns are run a specific way, I think the book helped many people make sense of things that they were already experiencing but couldn’t fully understand. My 5 big broad takeaways would be:

(i) Insights into the role and mechanics of branding and narrative building in shaping people’s opinions of a politician or party.

(ii) The increasing use of data to micro target voter groups, and getting different demographics to see entirely different campaign messages.

(iii) The huge role that money plays in electoral politics, and how that ties in to corruption, caste based voting blocs and crony capitalism.

(iv) How party spokespersons, politicians and TV commentators often take a stance on TV while not really believing it themselves off camera.

(v) Why most new parties and electoral experiments fail in India, with Aam Aadmi Party being an exception that I’ve delved into to understand why it succeeded.

What is the next book you are working on about?

Nothing concrete is in the works yet, but I suspect it’ll have something to do with information warfare at a global level, specifically as it relates to the great power rivalry forming between the United States and China. These days I’m researching that rivalry as part of my capstone for Schwarzman Scholars too, and it’s fascinating how large of a role information and narratives play in such geopolitical relationships. 

What’s your opinion on AAP winning Punjab elections? What is the future for state parties which want to transform into national parties in India?

It’s an absolutely historic win for AAP. Within a short span of 10 years of its existence, AAP has now formed the government in two states. No regional party has managed to do this even after existing for decades. Before this, only INC, BJP and Left parties have formed governments in multiple states while all regional parties have only had a footprint big enough to form the government in one state. I believe AAP will continue to do well in many of the states going to polls over the next two years, making it an important player in the national elections. Very few regional parties have actually put in the effort to become national ones in the past, and most will continue to be happy with winning in their own states, but the decline of Congress has opened up space at the national level and we could see regional parties trying to expand more aggressively. AAP’s success is currently without parallel though.  

Tell us more about your experiences at the Schwarzman Scholars Program.

The Schwarzman Scholars Program is an absolutely unbelievable experience to get to understand China and get a global perspective on how the world operates from people who are experts in their domains. The phenomenal faculty and guest speakers that the Schwarzman Scholars team is able to get for the program is impressive on paper, but to get to experience it is another thing entirely. In the past few months, I’ve gotten writing tips from New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman, life lessons from General Karl Eikenberry, insights on China from former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and many other renowned global experts who’ve been kind enough to share their insights. Such an experience is beyond what I could have imagined, and the program truly is one of its kind.

Vidhi Bubna
Vidhi Bubna
Vidhi Bubna is a freelance journalist from Mumbai who covers international relations, defence, diplomacy and social issues. Her current focus is on India-China relations.