2014 election campaign

Why Sri Sri Ravi Shankar wants your voter ID card number

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar wants to know everything about your voting preferences, even your voter ID card number. But why?

What does your happiness have to do with elections? Evidently, a lot – according to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the man in white robes and a flowing beard who leads the Art of Living foundation. Art of Living calls itself an educational and humanitarian organisation, but is best known for its expensive yoga classes.

Gurudev, as Sri Sri is called by his followers, has asked the foundation's teachers and volunteers to survey a hundred people each using a 'Happiness Survey’. The survey starts with a profound question: 'Are you happy in life?' But it soon moves to mundane ones on corruption and price rise. It asks you to rate the economic situation in the country, reveal the single most important criteria for you when you vote in 2014, and share what do you believe could bring in the maximum change in the country: existing ruling party, another national party, or a newly formed party?

After finding out your political preferences, the survey asks you to share your voter ID card number. Since it has already taken down your location, email and mobile number, any political party that gets hold of the survey would find it easy to track you down to influence your voting decision before elections, which might be the least worrying possibility of what such data could be used for.

The survey is being carried out as part of the Art of Living foundation’s campaign called ‘I Vote for a Better India’, which was launched in February 2013 with the declared aim of “increasing the awareness and importance of voting in our civil society, especially the youth.”

What does gathering data on people’s political preferences have to do increasing voter awareness? What does the Art of Living foundation intend to do with the data it collects? Does it assure people that their data would be kept confidential and not be shared? Questions emailed to the campaign office went unanswered.

Scroll.in filled a survey online and found no declaration of data protection at the end of the survey. India lacks a comprehensive data protection law and public awareness on data privacy is fairly low.

The Art of Living foundation has more than 500 centres across the length and breadth of India, from Arunachal Pradesh to the Andamans. If every teacher and volunteer were to survey a hundred people each, the foundation would be able to gather a mountain of political information.

In the absence of any assurance given on data confidentiality, the foundation could easily share the data with any political party. While Sri Sri Ravi Shankar claims to harbour no political affiliations, he was seen at Ramlila Maidan in the summer of 2011 supporting the India Against Corruption movement, and in January, he praised Narendra Modi, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate. Addressing his followers in Samastipur in Bihar most recently, he said that India needed a single-party government rather than a "khichdi".

An email circulating in Art of Living circles with instructions on how to carry out the survey offers further insight. “The aim is not to tell people who to vote for but educate and inspire,” it says. Yet it quickly follows up with what people should be inspired to think. “Kindle the feeling that a stable, experienced government is required in today’s situation and that it is a good practice to rotate power to prevent corruption and increase responsibility… An inexperienced party will not provide confidence to investors and further erode the value of our currency. When you are driving on mountainous roads, will you prefer an experienced driver or a family member who has a learner’s License?”

If you should vote for neither the party in power, nor the inexperienced newbie, then it is quite apparent who Sri Sri wants you to vote for. And who he might be sharing your data with.

 
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