Friday, May 21, 2004

Outsourcing the Bush campaign

An alert reader directed us to this piece in the Asia Times:
How India funds Bush's campaign

The story asserts that the Bush campaign outsourced a chunk of its national fundraising work on phone banks, apparently disguising their origin by making them primarily automated calls:
While the Internet provides fertile ground for spoofs on Bush's job being outsourced to India, his task is certainly being made a lot easier by Indians. Until recently, HCL eServe, the business process outsourcing (BPO) arm of Shiv Nadar-promoted HCL Technologies, handled Bush's nationwide fundraising campaign over the telephone.

HCL has been very reluctant to provide information about the project, but now that it is over it is more forthcoming, though strictly off the record. According to reports, for 14 months between May 16, 2002, and July 22, 2003, HCL eServe had more than 100 agents working in seven teams soliciting financial contributions for the Republican Party. A report that appeared in the Hindustan Times this Sunday says the task was to mobilize support for President Bush and solicit political contributions ranging between US$5 and $3,000 from legions of registered Republican voters. The report further adds that the voters' database was provided by the Republican National Committee (RNC), the party's premier political organization. The contract for running the campaigns was originally awarded by RNC to Washington-based Capital Communications Group, which provides consulting services to government and private clients for cultural and political networking. For cost and efficiency gains, the company outsourced the work to HCL Technologies, which in turn sent it offshore.

Nobody from HCL BPO Services is willing to go on record to talk about the deal, but sources in the company told Asia Times Online that such a project was under way for a long time, with more than 10 million registered Republican voters contacted for pledging funds. Estimates put the extent of funds pledged due to efforts from India at more than $10 million, with the retrieval of the money being followed up by the RNC. According to the sources, the calling process involved a high degree of automation in order to limit human intervention, with voice recording and recognition technology. In this way the US respondents would not have any idea where the calls were coming from, with foreign-accented instead of Indian voices being used.

It's important to note that the story does not cite anyone on the record from either the Bush campaign nor from HCL -- so at this point, it's anonymously sourced. That alone should be grounds for caution.

It's probably also worth remembering that the claim that Bush was outsourcing his campaign work dates back to early last year, when the New Delhi Business Standard reported a GOP-HCL connection. Buzzflash, you'll recall, picked this up and briefly carried it.

However, the Republican National Committee immediately issued a denial of sorts, through a UPI political report:
The Republican National Committee, through spokesman Kevin Sheridan, completely denies the allegation, telling UPI, "Any report that the Republican National Committee has hired HCL eServe -- the firm mentioned in the original Business Standard article -- is a case of bad reporting, bad business practices or both. The RNC has no affiliation with HCL. Any inference to the contrary is flat out wrong. The RNC has informed both HCL and of the inaccuracy of this report."

This was a carefully worded denial with holes large enough to drive large trucks through. The RNC, for instance, is a separate entity from the Bush re-election campaign. Or HCL could even be operating as a subcontractor, meaning the RNC might not have any affiliation with HCL, but one of its contractors might.

So the story has been ignored, at least until the most recent report from the Asia Times. That report, incidentally, does not shed any more light on just which arm of the "Bush campaign" was doing the outsourcing, though it does seem to point the finger directly at the RNC. And while its sources remain anonymous, the paper itself is nonetheless credible enough that its assertions should not be dismissed utterly.

It's worth noting that the report makes clear why Indians are sympathetic to Bush -- namely, as a response to Kerry's anti-outsourcing campaign positions:
The 2004 US elections are witnessing Indian-Americans reaching out to Republican Bush as a reaction to the virulent anti-outsourcing campaign being orchestrated by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Further, given the strides that Indo-US relations have taken under Bush, politically, economically and militarily, the Indian community feels much more comfortable in maintaining this continuity. Bush has himself indicated his pro-India proclivities by promising that he will visit the country next year if he wins re-election. Although India has been unhappy with some of the recent steps taken by the Bush administration, including the granting of special non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) status to Pakistan, India's relations with the United States have been by and large on the ascent.

HCL BPO remains mum about the Bush campaign connection, but it has been covering its bases, if nothing else. If you visit HCL BPO's Web site and thumb through the white papers, a piece titled "The outsourcing-offshoring edge," there's a section addressing "Challenges" that describes "Managing outsourcing backlash from U.S.A."

I think it should be possible to discuss outsourcing without getting xenophobic, but I'm leery of at least some anti-outsourcing sentiments I've heard expressed because that tendency seems latent in them. (I'm reminded at times of the racist activism of much of the labor movement from the 1860s until the 1940s.) Nonetheless, there is something disturbing about the prospect that deeply discounted labor from another nation might be playing a significant role in the election.

Certainly, it would be worth asking someone at the Bush campaign -- and the RNC too -- whether anyone affiliated with Bush's relection phone campaign was outsourcing the work to India. And asking them more questions if they continue to parse their words.

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