NEW DELHI — In August 2013, as Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) laid the groundwork for his wildly successful run for Prime Minister in the 2014 Indian election, his campaign research advisor Prashant Kishor suggested they start a women’s empowerment NGO as part of a discreet voter outreach programme.
The NGO would have no visible connection to Modi, Kishor or the BJP, according to two people with firsthand knowledge of the matter, and would work with acid-attack survivors as a precursor to building a network of influential supporters who could be translated into votes as the Lok Sabha elections drew close.
On 10 August 2013, the Sarvani Foundation — another name for the Hindu goddess Durga, venerated by Modi — was registered in Ahmedabad with a former Jet airways flight attendant and former sales support specialist for Adobe listed as its owners. One owner was the wife, and the other was the sister of a graphic designer in Kishor’s employ.
The foundation never got going; Modi won the summer of 2014 elections, Amit Shah was named party president soon after, and Kishor and the BJP parted ways soon. The Sarvani Foundation went dormant for three years, company records show, only to be revived soon after the BJP suffered a shock defeat in the Bihar state elections.
The Sarvani Foundation — now renamed the Association of Billion Minds — tasked Dipak Patel, a discreet Gujarati businessman, and Himanshu Singh, a 31-year-old former McKinsey consultant, with assembling a cohort of IIT engineers, consultants, lawyers and young professionals, to become BJP party president Shah’s personal election consulting unit.
Since then, the Association of Billion Minds or ABM, is a big reason why most of Modi’s tenure has felt like one eternal election campaign. India’s ruling party has tasked this secretive quorum of nerds with running sophisticated misinformation campaigns to spread fake news and false claims on social media and WhatsApp and in staged conversations in public gatherings.
ABM’s campaigns — which are often communal and divisive — are ramped up on the eve of critical elections and throttled down in the interludes between polls, even as the BJP has maintained a public distance from the firm. In March 2018, Amit Malviya, the head of BJP IT Cell, was asked if the BJP worked with ABM, at an India Today event.
“I don’t know who ABM is,” Malviya said at the time.
Meanwhile, ABM’s team of at least 161 full-time employees in 12 regional offices across India provides the BJP with feedback on its key political moves, helps shortlist candidates for vital elections, and manages a phalanx of paid field workers who introduce themselves to party cadre as “Amit Shah’s team”.
The group conceives, designs, executes and memeifies many of the party’s campaigns — including “Main bhi Chowkidar”, “Nation with NaMo”, and “Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat” — and makes them viral across a network of Facebook pages with millions of followers. Nation with NaMo and Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat are co-ordinated online and offline campaigns in which speeches, rallies and public events in the physical world are quickly turned into digital content for online platforms. The pages are designed to look like Modi fan pages, rather than the work of ABM or the BJP.
This isn’t unique to the BJP, but the ruling party is simply better funded and better organised than the opposition.
Two ABM-managed pages are the top two biggest spenders on Facebook, a fact disclosed once the social network rolled out its advertiser transparency campaign in February 2019. Yet, ABM’s covert online presence shows how Facebook’s transparency campaign is easily subverted.
HuffPost India analysed hundreds of pages of company records, election expenditure statements and website registries, and interviewed 20 people, including former and serving ABM employees, former associates of the company’s founders, and on-ground staff, to illustrate how India’s cash-rich ruling party has married Silicon Valley tech platforms with a deep pool of paid workers and unpaid party cadres to assemble a formidable election machine. The machine has many moving parts but a single purpose: to bombard India’s 900 million voters with a relentless stream of real and fake information to ensure all attention is always focused on one man—Narendra Modi.
To this end, ABM plays a role in every aspect of the BJP’s election planning. The firm compiles detailed dossiers on potential candidates from each constituency, prepares poll booth-level political intelligence reports, plots out routes for teams canvassing for votes, runs polling day war-rooms, and designs and manages online propaganda campaigns.
ABM isn’t even the only such firm employed by the BJP, but it is the most secretive and has the deepest relationship with Shah, the party president.
Yet, India’s toothless election funding laws have allowed parties like the BJP to keep their financial relationship to entities that are canvassing on their behalf, like ABM, under wraps. Under current laws, the BJP does not have to disclose how much money it pays ABM.
“I would characterise the use of consultancies by any political party as an act of subterfuge, but it cannot be termed illegal,” said Jagdeep Chhokar of the Association of Democratic Reforms, an election watchdog group. “It is immoral but not illegal.”
Sahana Udupa, who teaches digital politics at the University of Munich, said using data analytics companies for political campaigning “has caused devastating effects across the world.”
“The collusion between data surveillance capital and political power is deeply damaging for democracy, since voters’ behavioral patterns are traced, plotted, predicted and played upon in surreptitious and covert ways,” Udupa said.
“A voter can recognize a roadside billboard coming from a political party, and trace an advertisement in newspapers and television to their sponsors,” she said. “But the silent work of algorithms and analytics is hard to recognize without sustained investigative exposés. They largely go unaccounted.”
All of HuffPost India’s ABM sources requested anonymity, citing non-disclosure agreements that forbid them from discussing their work with the company. HuffPost India emailed a list of questions to ABM, and senior BJP functionaries and party spokespersons. We will update this copy when they reply.
Fake News Factory
In May 2018, when the Karnataka state elections were in full swing, fact-checking website BOOM Live identified a number of websites posing as news outlets. The sites, which had names like Express Bangalore, Bangalore Herald, Bengaluru Mirror and Bengaluru Times, “peddled political propaganda” and posted “inflammatory content” directed at non-BJP parties. The Bangalore Herald website published multiple articles with fake survey results that were attributed to fictitious polling agencies, predicting a massive victory for the BJP.
The BJP lost the elections, and these websites vanished immediately after the polls.
Bangalore Herald, BOOM Live found, was redirecting to Bharatpositive.in, a website and Facebook page with close to 1 million followers that consistently publishes pro-BJP content and fake news directed at the ruling party’s opponents. In November 2018, for instance, Bharat Positive published a Facebook post claiming that money donated to the family of an eight-year-old Muslim girl, who was brutally gang-raped and murdered, had been stolen by Shehla Rashid — a vocal opponent of Prime Minister Modi. The claim was patently false.
HuffPost India used website registry records and interviewed one current and one former ABM employee to establish that Bharatpositive.in, and its Facebook page, are managed by ABM.
Bharat Positive was set up in August 2017 by Nikhil Mehra, who was an ABM employee at the time, according to publicly available company records. A month before the Karnataka elections, the page’s ownership in the registry was updated and transferred to an ABM administrator account with the email firstname.lastname@example.org and the phone number of Mukul Jindal, a software engineer and a former ABM employee. A day after the BOOM Live story was published, the registry was changed again to conceal the digital trail leading back to ABM.
HuffPost India used a service offered by DomainTools, a cyber-forensics firm, to retrace how Bharatpositive.in changed hands. Mehra and Jindal denied any connection with the website when HuffPost India contacted them.
That’s not all. The consultancy registered at least two more websites with addresses intended to look like legitimate newspaper sites. Website registry records show that bangaloreherald.in and bengalurumirror.in are also owned by ABM.
Bharat Positive apart, ABM runs at least seven other popular pages for the BJP: Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat (300k likes), Nation With NaMo (1.1 million likes), Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar (2.7 million likes), Mahathugbandhan (480k likes), India Unravelled (152k likes), My First Vote For Modi (74k likes) and Modi11, a new page launched last week.
This cluster of Facebook pages act as BJP mouthpieces, but allow the party to formally distance itself from the false information propagated by these pages.
Nation With NaMo, the anchor for many of ABM’s online activities, has posted at least four heavily edited videos that misrepresent opposition leader and Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s statements on the tragic killing of at least 40 Indian troopers in Pulwama, Kashmir, on 14 February, and on loan waivers to indebted farmers. While the misleading clip on Pulwama garnered over 21,000 likes and 13,000 shares, the false video on loan waivers was shared over 67,000 times.
Posts on ABM-managed sites, a current employee told HuffPost India, are optimised for virality.
“The more outrageous a post the better,” the ABM employee said. “This is why they spread poison on Facebook.”
The playbook is simple. “Nobody cares whether the content is true or not. Just put one line out of context,” the employee continued. “It may be true, it may not be true. Doesn’t matter. It’s all about getting your content shared.”
ABM’s Network of Pro-BJP Sites on Social Media
ABM-managed Facebook pages go to great lengths to conceal their connections to India’s ruling party. In December 2018, Facebook said all accounts that place political advertisements must display a verified postal address and a valid phone number as part of the company’s election transparency initiatives.
For three ABM-managed Facebook pages — Nation With NaMo, Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat and My First Vote For Modi — the only indication of their connection to the BJP is their listed postal address, which maps to the BJP headquarters in Delhi. Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar, MahaThugBandhan and Modi11 declare addresses that do not show any connection with the party or ABM.
None of the phone numbers provided by the six pages can be reached, but current and former ABM employees confirmed that ABM manages these pages.
These sites create the appearance of a vibrant online community of independent Modi supporters that are, in reality, a team of ABM employees paid to put up post after post about the many virtues of the Indian Prime Minister.
This dissimulation — incorrect contact details, out-of-service phone numbers — appear to go against Facebook’s political advertisement transparency initiatives. Facebook has said the new rules are meant to give “people more information about who’s responsible for the ads they see”.
As part of the initiative, Facebook requires mandatory verification of physical postal addresses provided by political advertisers on its site — it doesn’t always work.
When a HuffPost India reporter registered himself as a political advertiser, Facebook’s third party verifier OnGrid simply texted the reporter saying he was verified.
“If someone calls you,” OnGrid’s verifier texted. “Just say you were verified in person. Otherwise your Id may be blocked.”
Earlier this week, Facebook removed hundreds of pages and accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” that were run by supporters of both the BJP and the Congress.
“Facebook’s recent takedown of accounts from India was related to the behavior of the accounts than the content posted,” said Kanishk Karan, a research associate at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, Atlantic Council, Facebook’s research partner in combating election-related propaganda. Misrepresentation is a violation of the platform’s policies, Karan explained, just like posting false information is a violation of the usage of the company’s services.
The pages running political advertisements should be transparent in their page descriptions, Karan added.
“If the funding for pages is for online political campaigns, then the page should be explicit with party or organization affiliations in their page information section that is visible to followers,” he said. “Community standards on platforms require users to be explicit when it comes to authenticity and representation.”
ABM-run properties do not appear to follow these standards. HuffPost India has shared its findings about ABM’s network with Facebook.
“We believe our efforts to bring greater authenticity and transparency to ads on Facebook have helped better protect elections,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s Public Policy Director, Global Elections, in an emailed response. “There will always be bad actors that will try to game our systems but we’re committed to continuing to strengthen our safeguards and making it harder.It’s important that we keep taking these steps to protect people. Our investigations into this type of activity are ongoing and we will take actions against any Pages or accounts that are found to violate our policies.”
Toothless Campaign Finance Laws
The Association of Billion Minds has been intimately involved in the BJP’s state election plans since the Uttar Pradesh state elections in March 2017, yet the company finds no mention in the party’s campaign expenditure statements filed before the Election Commission of India.
Company annual reports filed with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs offer the barest of details on the company’s financial workings. In financial year 2016-17, when ABM ran its first campaign for the BJP, it posted a revenue of Rs 16.9 crore — nearly half of which went in paying salaries, buying laptops and mobile phones; travel and hotel bills accounted for the rest. In 2017-18, revenue rose to Rs 23.5 crore with salary costs rising sharply as more employees came on board.
These numbers may seem low, but given ABM’s role as a consultant, the company does not pay for election-related costs directly off its balance sheet.
For example, ABM worked with MangoData, which describes itself as “India’s First AI based adtech company”, to place political ads on Facebook, according to a current employee. The BJP’s expenditure statement for the Karnataka elections record a payment of Rs 16,83,622 to MangoData’s legal holding entity Crescent Data Technologies Pvt Ltd.
To be sure, routing payments in this manner is not illegal. Several international firms help companies in diverse sectors (including the media) optimise their Facebook spend.
But Chhokar, from the election watchdog ADR, said such arrangements made it hard to establish exactly how much political parties and candidates spend on running for office.
“We have not been able to regulate physical stuff like paid news,” Chhokar said. “Social media is not traceable and so it is extremely hard to regulate.”
The tiny amounts of traceable money highlight just how opaque election expenditure in India really is.
The Election Commission’s Transparency Guidelines of 2014 require political parties to submit a “true and correct statement of their election expenses.” But there is no prescribed format for reporting these expenses, no legal consequences for not doing so, and no verification mechanism to ensure these expenses tally up.
MangoData did not respond to a request for comment.
From CAG To Nation With NaMo
The page history of the Nation with NaMo Facebook page offers a short history of ABM and political consulting in India.
The Nation With NaMo page was originally called Indiacag when it was set up on June 11, 2013. A week later, the page was re-named Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG).
Back then, CAG was Modi’s campaign manager Prashant Kishor’s brainchild to first covertly, and then openly, recruit young professionals to help Modi become Prime Minister.
In 2013, the BJP was among the first Indian political parties to adopt modern campaigning techniques like data-driven decision making, covert advertising and using paid professionals, rather than volunteer party workers, to manage campaigns.
Kishor first gained attention for his work on Modi’s 2012 campaign to be re-elected as Gujarat Chief Minister. At the time Modi tasked a Gujarati businessman named Dipak Patel to assist Kishor, according to two people close to Patel.
“He provided logistical and material support — cars, drivers, places to stay, things like that,” said one of the two sources. Patel was also part of Kishor’s plan to set up the Sarvani foundation — the organisation that would eventually become ABM — to attract women voters.
“The idea was to do genuinely good work for women, and then see where it takes us,” said the same source, explaining the rationale behind Sarvani.
CAG dissolved in 2014 after Modi won the general election. Four former CAG workers told HuffPost India that Modi and party president Amit Shah sidelined Kishor as they felt he was taking too much credit for BJP’s electoral success.
When Kishor decided to work with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) for the Bihar state election in 2015, the press took notice.
“Nitish has got hold of Modi’s brahmastra of the 2014 campaign and is trying to use it against Modi himself,” political analyst Prof. Nawal Kishor Chaudhary told Telegraph journalist Sankarshan Thakur in a 2015 piece titled Modi’s Ace versus Modi’s ex-Mace.
The BJP lost, Nitish won, and Kishor’s legend was further burnished.
“That was the intent for us,” said a former CAG worker who now works at Indian Political Action Committee, Kishor’s new consultancy. “In 2014, everyone said Modi would have won anyway, what did you guys do?”
After the elections, three people with first-hand knowledge of the matter told HuffPost India, Amit Shah reached out to Patel, the businessman once tasked with assisting Kishor, and asked him to tap his contacts and put together a political consultancy to work exclusively for the BJP. The new entity would be housed in the now-defunct Sarvani Foundation.
On February 10, 2016, company records show, the Sarvani Foundation applied to Gujarat’s registrar of companies to change its name. “Citizens for Hope and Change”, “Citizens Clinic for Change Association”, “Foundation for Belief Optimism Courage Conviction Action”, “Association of Citizens Ready for India’s Acceleration and Empowerment” were some of the names suggested in the application. On May 24, 2016, the company registrar signed off on “Association of Billion Minds”.
The owners of the company are Reshma Alkesh Rochwani, and Bhavna Sanjay Chhabaria — the wife and sister, respectively, of Alkesh Rochwani, Kishor’s graphic designer who soon joined ABM. Rochwani and his sister Bhavna (whose Facebook profile lists her as a former Jet Airways flight attendant) also work for Shatayu—an organ-donation NGO supported by the Govindbhai C. Patel Foundation which, in turn, is supported by Ganesh Housing Corporation Limited, Dipak Patel’s family business. Dipak Patel, according to Shatayu publicity material, was moved to support organ donation after he received a successful heart transplant.
Patel asked Himanshu Singh, a young aerospace engineer from IIT Kanpur who had quit his job at McKinsey to work for the Modi campaign as part of CAG in 2014, and Sunil Kanugolu, another CAG alumnus, to run the new firm.
Kanugolu and Singh left CAG after Modi’s victory in 2014 following differences with Kishor. Singh went on to launch Flont, a fashion rental startup, and Kanugolu managed M.K. Stalin’s failed bid to unseat Jayalalithaa in the 2016 Tamil Nadu elections.
Many ABM employees were legacy CAG so they had access to the Citizens for Accountable Governance Facebook page. The new organisation quickly changed the passwords and took over the page and its 1.5 million followers.
On January 10, 2018, as the Modi government entered the last stretch of its tenure, the page was renamed Citizens for Modi Government, then Nation with Modi on February 2, 2018, and then finally Nation with NaMo on February 14, 2018.
Alkesh Rochwani and Chhabaria refused to comment on ABM when HuffPost India spoke to them on the phone. Singh and Patel did not reply to an emailed questionnaire. Kanugolu could not be reached for a comment.
Amit Shah’s Personal Team
ABM’s management was determined to avoid Kishor’s publicity-driven style of consulting. Unlike Kishor, the new entity would work exclusively for the BJP, would avoid the media at all costs and would never ever try to claim credit for the BJP, Shah, or Modi’s successes. Instead, the organisation sought to position itself as an extremely low-profile in-house sounding board with a licence to speak truth to Amit Shah.
Rather than rely on local party cadres and leaders who would, most likely, have their favourites and biases, Shah wanted ABM to work at a remove from the party bureaucracy and be objective in assessing the party’s preparedness for critical polls.
For their first campaign in the Uttar Pradesh elections of 2017 ABM tested many of the strategies that have now become part of their 2019 tool kit.
“We were known as ‘Amit Shah’s team’,” said a former ABM employee, describing his experience of working on the Uttar Pradesh campaign. “In the first two months, we gathered ground intelligence and information. ABM conducted surveys to understand the sentiment around the BJP, various political leaders and figure out winnability of potential candidates.”
ABM used historical election data to find polling booths that may swing the election; and suggested the names of the candidates the party should poach from their rivals.
In each constituency, ABM conducted extensive ground interviews to understand voter sentiment and identify local influencers. All this surveying resulted in the preparation of detailed dossiers recommending likely candidates. ABM has since quantified the process by creating a points-based scorecard to evaluate each candidate.
A current ABM employee explained how this data could be put to use.
“The report must be actionable. We use a consultancy framework,” he said. “Say, in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, we consolidated the non-Jatav Dalit vote, and the non-Yadav OBC vote behind the BJP. Now, as voting day 2019 draws closer, how do we ensure these groups don’t desert us?”
Once a question is framed in this manner for a particular constituency, the reports are intended to help the party leadership solve that problem.
Selecting the right candidate for a particular constituency is any campaign’s hardest problem, so two former and one current ABM employees were careful to note that ABM only passes on inputs and suggestions to the party.
ABM also started the Nation With NaMo campaign — which is now garnering much national attention — in the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017. At the time, the campaign was advertised on an IIT Kanpur Facebook page as a “community organising initiative by a group of young professionals from varied backgrounds”, rather than an initiative paid for by the BJP.
“In a meeting with Amit Shah, when the idea of Nation With NaMo was presented, he clearly stated that the programme should refrain from publicly associating with the BJP,” said a former ABM employee with direct knowledge of the matter.
“Nation With NaMo was an experiment,” the source continued. “If things blew out of proportion and turn out not so well for the party, then BJP would have a face-saving tactic, telling others that they don’t have any relation with this organisation.”
Another former employee said the idea was to get 10-20 people from every constituency to act as volunteers to spread the word for Narendra Modi.
“We typically wanted to enrol people who are influential enough who will act like conversion therapists to persuade people to vote for the BJP,” he said.
The volunteers were told not to identify themselves as BJP workers, but to engage with voters on matters of public debate and subtly push BJP propaganda. For instance, India’s 2016 military action against Pakistan along the Kashmir border, described as “surgical strike” by the government, was a matter of much public debate and scepticism in the run up to the polls in Uttar Pradesh.
“So if anyone was questioning whether the strikes happened or not, it was the volunteer’s task to rebuke, saying ‘How can you say that?’” the ABM employee said.
In time, as the campaign grew without any obvious mishaps, the BJP gradually began to acknowledge it. At present, the party’s youth wing publicly identified Nation With NaMo as a campaign to draw millenials to the party.
“Nation With NaMo is meant to attract people who aren’t interested in politics, but are deeply attracted to our Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi,” said Suresh Rana, the BJP’s elected representative from the Thana Bhavan state assembly constituency. “There are many such young people now.”
Rana, who is a member of the BJP, said he had not heard of ABM but was acquainted with Nation With NaMo.
“Ask the young people,” he said.
Nation With NaMo:
On any given day, J’s email inbox buzzes with prompts from his supervisor asking him to fill out a particular detail in one of innumerable spreadsheets shared with him on a Google drive. The questions are quite specific:
One spreadsheet appears to be a cheat-sheet for visiting political leaders:
- Please mention any religious places, deities, or sants from the constituency.
- Please mention any well known historical or current personalities from the constituency.
- Please mention any form of greeting unique to this constituency.
Another asks for the name, address and profession of local “influencers” followed by two pertinent questions:
- Will influencer be able to mobilise at least 50 people via an on-ground sabha?
- Will influencer be able to make a Whatsapp group of 50 people and share Nation with Namo content therein?
J is a field worker for Nation With NaMo, and an example of how the programme — which began as a covert “community initiative” — has rapidly scaled into a full-blown national campaign.
A young, well-connected lawyer in a peri-urban small town in an electorally significant state in north India, J signed up for Nation With NaMo when he spotted a job advertisement on Naukri.com, a popular job listings site.
Nation with NaMo pays Rs 50,000 per month to a consultant like J, but as a man of independent means, he said he used the money to recruit a small team of five unemployed young men to do his work for him.
“I come from a political family but not a BJP family,” he said, explaining that he had taken up the job out of curiosity and to see if it could lead to a side career in politics. “I don’t want to run for elections, I just want to be become an OSD to a minister.”
But why did he want to become an Officer on Special Duty, or OSD?
“My grandparents gave me a gift of love that I need to get registered,” he said with a smile. The gift in question, he admitted, was a gun of an illegal calibre.
After the interview, he offered HuffPost India a peek into his bedroom where an oversized pink teddy bear was placed beside a wall-hook strung with a belt of shotgun ammunition.
Guns, J said, “They are like jewellery for men.”
ABM has hundreds of such workers scattered in constituencies around the country, each hoping that the drudgery of campaign work will eventually translate into a position of influence.
The information that workers like J feed into their Google spreadsheets is collated at the ABM headquarters in Gurugram, on the outskirts of Delhi, in the hope that the data shall somehow suggest a method to the madness of India’s elections.
“We have done extensive research for all 4,500 assembly constituencies,” Siddharth Singh Sengar, a BJP party worker in Madhya Pradesh now associated with Nation With NaMo, told HuffPost India. “We provide them with raw data. They summarise it and create a monthly report. Closer to the 2019 elections, a daily report will be generated.”
These reports, Sengar said, had details of “every single thing that is happening in the constituency”.
Ultimately it is hard to assess how much difference ABM makes to the eventual electoral outcome. The BJP also works with other political consultancies, making it even harder to isolate the impact of one particular team.
The BJP’s opponents too have hired their own consultancies — setting off an arms race of young men scuttling around India’s small towns and villages armed with survey forms and smartphones.
ABM’s Uttar Pradesh election campaign ended in historic triumph, with the BJP winning 325 of 403 seats. But the company also worked on the Gujarat elections where the BJP narrowly squeaked to victory, and in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — where the party lost.
Yet, with 2019 promising to be an unpredictable election, small shifts in voting patterns at the level of the constituency could disproportionately affect the number of seats any one party will win.
The Myth Of Professionalism
When Prashant Kishor first drew young middle-class professionals from India’s elite universities into the Modi campaign, the promise was to “clean-up” politics. Implicit in this promise was the misguided notion that salaried professionals were apolitical and were answering a higher calling in their quest to help Modi.
Five years later, as Modi runs for re-election, the story of Kishor, Citizens for Accountable Governance, and ABM, reveals how some of the country’s brightest minds, educated at colleges like the Indian Institutes of Technology, were essentially co-opted into running a high-tech propaganda mission in service of one man.
In interviews with HuffPost India, many former ABM employees seemed disillusioned by what they had helped build.
“We went there as enthusiastic learners, to work in a startup, to bring in professionalism into politics,” one former employee said. “But we ended up bringing politics into our profession.”