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Democracies are expected to empower citizens to take genuine control of instruments of the state for their development. At the core of this concept is the idea that citizens will participate in governance at the local level, making decisions for themselves, and vote in representatives to legislatures for higher-level decisions. India is an implausible democracy, an audacious experiment, attempting to bring together a billion people with starkly different languages, religions, and food habits. However, the state of our democracy remains perilous, a country hanging on by a slender thread to its claim to being defined a democracy. Like with many other aspects famously considered ‘Indian’, our democracy is a mediocre one, fulfilling satisfactorily, only the most basic requirement of regular (and reasonably free and fair) elections. Democratic accountability in particular, appears particularly at risk, as we the people, have fewer ways to hold those in power responsible for their performance.

Four scenarios raising concerns about democratic accountability currently playing out in India:

Propaganda rules over facts

Late last year, the central government pulled off ‘Demonetisation’, an exercise in purging cash reserves of the political opposition after ensuring the ruling party’s own reserves were safely parked (or converted) well in time. Manipulation of the press by political parties through direct funding (or proxy measures) continues unabated, as news channels spectacularly out-do the state broadcaster in peddling propaganda. The true extent of damage caused by Demonetisation will never be known — not because we do not have the tools to measure the damage, but because voters are being herded like sheep, not to ask any questions. As a result, the Reserve Bank of India can get away without releasing key data, and the lack of that data need not deter the government from making grandiose statements that go almost completely unchallenged in the public domain. Those who do question, do it with the knowledge that nit-picking on facts is futile.

Dissent is anti-national

The state’s response to dissent continues to plumb new depths. Civil society voices have been muted, farmer/dalit protests are killed in cahoots with a friendly media, etc. Those speaking up against the rampant terrorism in the name of the cow, or the fast-receding freedom of the press, are labelled anti-national. Dissent, whether from the grassroots or from intellectuals in society, are continuously demonised by a government that seems to take pride in its own anti-intellectualism, and celebration of mediocrity as evident from the various appointments to institutions of repute. Activists are being silenced everywhere. Today, Medha Patkar languishes in jail, as a government utterly insensitive to citizen protests makes no conciliatory move.Decimation of political opposition: A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader — it is the perfect storm for the Indian National

Decimation of political opposition

A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader — it is the perfect storm for the Indian National Congress, and a sign of the times for political opposition in India. This decimation is now fully reflected in the composition of India’s Parliament, and the erosion of checks and balances that the Legislature is supposed to have over the Executive In a parliamentary system. The few states that are not ruled by the BJP get undue attention from partisan Governors and federal anti-corruption agencies. The use of the Governor’s office as a pawn in the hands of the central government must evoke a sense of deja-vu. Politics that seemed to have matured in the last fifteen years or so now lies in tatters.

Narcissism and hero-worship

When the BJP government recently completed three years in office, the government launched the MODI Fest — the Making of Developed India festival. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly Mann Ki Baat speeches were released as a book at an event in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Every government scheme is credited to only one man, and no failures are ever pinned on him. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, Modi-bhakti seems to be his second-last weapon of choice.

The point overall is this — to celebrate our incredible democracy, it is not enough to just conduct every five years, and for everyone to accept the election results. That is a very low bar. What matters is the quality of our democracy as measured by how the polity, the people, and the institutions operate once elections are over.

By this measure, India’s democracy has a long way to go. The systematic destruction of institutions, which need to function with a degree of competence and independence, will eventually kill our democracy. In the last three years, our institutions have shown themselves to be utterly incapable of protecting themselves from a government with authoritarian tendencies. The power that we have to hold public officials and politicians to account is directly proportionate to the credibility of institutions of governance. The way the Reserve Bank of India has folded in the last nine months should be serious cause for concern. The repeated attempts at politicising the military forces, the bellowing nationalistic media, our sanskari cultural guardians, and the uber-patriotic people’s representatives — together foretell a scary future for India.

The immediate casualty has been democratic accountability. No one seems to be responsible for the sluggish economy, now showing alarming signs of slipping into deflation. Similarly, no one seems responsible for breakdown in public services that the government is responsible for, nor is anyone held accountable for the questionable and inconsistent foreign policy decisions. Neither national security, nor corruption or cronyism seem to be topical any longer. Vigilantes break the law with impunity, as representatives of government hail them as patriots.

It is a great tragedy that after completing seventy years as a proud independent nation, our democracy is faced with such an existential crisis. If you are a liberal progressive Indian, this spectre should concern you.

*****

A short addendum

A friend pointed out that none of this is “new” — that this has been the nature of politics in India, and indeed, is something I recognise in this column on politics and power:
It is in the nature of a government to exercise power. Every political party in power manifests power in one form or the other — never mind if the one exercising it is being labelled ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. Often, these labels allow us the convenience of picking sides based on who we like, rather than the issue at hand. This only serves to lower the quality of public debate. In reality, it would appear that at their extremities, the Left and Right are indistinguishable; and that is a clue that what we need to really discern is the manner in which both sides choose to exercise power. And for citizens unaffiliated with these labels, understanding power is the first step towards engaging with it.

The exercise of power, and the “feudal” nature of politics in India is a reality. And yet, there is distinct shift in the pattern that we need to recognise. A government running amok with little counter-balance from the Legislature or the Press, and an inconsistent Judiciary has created an unique operating environment. Political parties that are now emaciated are of course responsible for their own fates, but the corporate control of the media (and an organised effort on social media) has emboldened the current government in ways we haven’t seen in recent years. And while ordinary citizens and observers cannot replace a conventional political opposition, we need to keep demanding accountability from the government — ultimately, that is the essence of a democracy. The voters may yet surprise us again, (who knows!), but this column is about holding governments to account in between two successive elections.

Originally published here.

It is very common to have selfish, ignorant people who would not like to know about the suffering of anyone keep talking about how "outraging on Twitter achieves nothing". Their oblivious state registers no information flows, public opinions formed, or help offered and received. They have decided that help is not this, and that is that.

While they are responsible for their own lack of insight and observation, this is a good time to point out the obvious.

  • Each person has their own account and are free to use them how they like. How I run my account is my business. You like, you subscribe, you don't like, you don't subscribe, you are unbearably offended by me saying whatever I want to say, you block. That is the extent of your rights regarding my account. Therefore, going on and on about disapproval is nothing but spiteful, juvenile trolling.
  • If you look beyond your tiny little interest space, which seems to be the only valid use of social networking in your view, there are a whole lot of other uses. From businesses offering support to activists in countries with severe censorship of media quickly getting news out.
  • About  human rights - the subject that seems to offend these obnoxious royals the most: There are a whole lot of other people beyond you. Political leaders, bureaucrats, journalists, bloggers, social workers, NGOs, activists, people interested in news about human rights, people needing help.... They connect. Many useful things emerge.
  • Journalists and politicians get direct access to views of people. If you outrage on something, it means that something is hurting your interests, and on social media, your hurt matters.
  • All sides of different issues find voice, which is invaluable in helping people understand situations better and make more informed choices that are likely to accommodate the interests of more people - precious in a diverse democracy like ours. Good example would be the Janlokpal campaign, or the objections raised to recent raids on pubs and bars. The ability to hold multiple sides of an issue creates precious space for reconciliation.

Here is how outrage on Twitter has directly influenced many happenings in the world:

  1. Last year's uprisings. From the Janlokpal movement to Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. Sharing of views and influencing opinions and organizing was heavily facilitated by social media. Yes, the Kashmir protests too.
  2. Lost people found, lost animals found, blood donations organized and in one case, even a kidnapping prevented.
  3. Attention to human rights abuses forces politicians and bureaucrats to take notice and act. Latest example being the Guwahati molestation, but there really are countless examples here.
  4. Awareness of issues of grave wrongs that media normally does not cover. Often, this awareness leads to media coverage. Examples on this blog are Keenan and Reuben murders, Naina Singh's murder.
  5. Those without voice being heard: As the internet penetration improves, it is helping... particularly social networks are helping people who are marginalized get their voices heard. Google CGNet Swara for an example.

This list can go on and on, but the point is made.

Do not make the mistake of thinking words are only so much air. Words are ideas. Yours may be worthless according to you, but there is more to the world than you. You may find mine worthless, but then it is highly unlikely that I have pinned my hopes on your comprehension or empathy.

Therefore, to mind your own business and not try to censor people with taunts, sarcasm or trolling.

The notification of the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules 2011 in April 2011 has resulted in the creation of a mechanism whereby intermediaries (such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo, etc) receive protection from legal liability in return for trading away the freedom of expression and privacy of users.

The Rules demand that intermediaries, on receiving a complaint that any content posted online is considered grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libelous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner, have to disable the content within 36 hours of receipt of complaint. The rules also require the intermediaries to provide the Government agencies information of users without any safeguards.

Under these Rules intermediaries will be forced to disable any and all content that falls foul of the incredibly broad and ambiguous criteria laid above, as non-compliance with such requests will result in their losing the liability protection afforded to intermediaries. In short, the Rules will result in private policing of the internet.  Any content that is critical of state policy, any organization or even any individual could run the risk of being censored, thanks to the Rules.  The Rules violate the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to privacy of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution of India.

There is no due process of law, any attention to principles of natural justice or a redressal mechanism for the aggrieved victim, whose content is taken down.  The Rules are also ambiguous and arbitrary, disjointed, legislate on disparate areas and are beyond the rule-making power of the Government.

After the Avnish Bajaj case, the Legislature wanted a safe harbor for intermediaries with safeguards and not a system of back door censorship for the Government.  In view of the possible deleterious effects of the Rules, the Honorable Member of Parliament, Shri P. Rajeeve has moved a statutory motion to get the aforesaid Rules annulled. This motion has been admitted and will be coming up before the Rajya Sabha during the second half of the Budget session of the parliament that starts on 24th of April, 2012.

We urge all MPs to support the annulment motion. We also request the Government to draft new rules, that will protect our freedom and  privacy, after holding consultation among all stakeholders.

Further Material:
There is an online petition in favor of the annulment motion at:
http://www.it2011.in

FAQ's of SFLC
http://softwarefreedom.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=129:faq-on-intermediary-rules&catid=1:latest-news&Itemid=50

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtA194jig3s

Names of Organisations

Knowledge Commons
Software Freedom Law Center, India
Delhi Science Forum
Save Your Voice Campaign
Internet Democracy Project
Center for Internet and Society
Free Software Movement India
IT for Change
Alternative Law Forum

29

Anna broke his fast, and the dam seems to have broken on a flood of articles about how the Lokpal Bill is trouble for India. Doom and gloom alternates with how we have the systems necessary, but are not using them appropriately. Many people seem to see this as an arbitrary body that would get corrupted and provide fake credibility to politicians.... and so on.

It seems the country needs healing from pessimism and cynicism before it needs healing from corruption.

What I saw happening was simple. I saw a democracy come vibrantly, gloriously alive. A democracy is the rule of the people through its representatives. The government being elected is not the sum total of a democracy. Elected representatives are one way of ensuring the representation of the interests of the people. What we saw on the streets of India this week is another.

Like any system, the government can fail, and it has failed in safeguarding the interests of the people. The people literally outvoted them on the streets this week. So far, everyone seems to be in agreement. But the concerns then begin.

It is undemocratic to have a non-elected body have power over the elected body in a government.

Unless we take a rigid stance that the only elections are those rigged up by the political parties, we can't fail to see the country VOTED that this should happen. I see this massive satyagraha as a huge vote in favour of that independent body having power over the government. And made far more effort than marking a paper and returning home in minutes to do so. The purpose of an election is to get the opinion of the people, not collect bits of paper and score points for political parties. The people literally voted against all political parties. Call it a no-confidence vote against all of them.

The people see the need of a supervisor here. And they see it enough to go through considerable discomfort to make sure it happens.

We have a choice right here. To be a purist of current methods of ensuring democracy, or to acknowledge the emergence of an unexpected method. It isn't going to make the slightest difference to the voice of the people, which has already spoken.

Only four lawyers out of ten

Unless the committee appointed by the people and the government is so utterly criminal that they aren't able to come up with anything legal, I don't see how this is a problem. It is the interest of the people that is the priority, while four lawyers are plenty to ensure that all is in accordance with the law. The bill is a joint effort, not separate bills by each person. The need is to have people who understand the rights and interests of the citizenry, their concerns and are familiar enough with current misgovernance to plan suitable safeguards. Four lawyers should be plenty to have a solid understanding of this in the context of our laws, if they do their jobs.

A non-elected body drafting a bill

Half that body is elected. The other half is solidly supported by citizens, as we see on TV everyday. I don't see this as an alien wildcard at all.

Father and son in the committee

It is natural for a nation paranoid about family politics to look on this with suspicion, but really, how true are allegations of nepotism? We need someone with a rock solid understanding of law and how it gets misused to look out for our interests. Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan qualify. Google them up. Being father and son on the same team is not a crime, if both qualify fair and square. We must also take into account that they both have spent considerable time, research and thought over the draft of the bill already. They are familiar with it. No matter what Baba Ramdev says, if he had been on the committee, I'd have lost faith in Anna Hazare himself and be writing about doom and gloom myself. Baba Ramdev is a good entertainer if a little infatuated with himself, and that's about it.

Kiran Bedi should have been on the Joint Committee

Okay, this is a secret hope, but I don't want that. Her strength is in enforcement. I'd much rather she were Lokpal/Lokayukta. If she were on the committee, people would be screaming foul if she got selected as Lokpal or Lokayukta later. Its best she's not on the committee 😀 Seriously, I agree completely with Anna, that the people on the committee at this stage need to be good with law. I admire that he didn't want to be there and occupy one place. It is unfortunate that he is there, but perhaps its for the best so he knows first hand what's going on. Not because I don't admire Anna, I do, but simply because his strength isn't law either. Anyway, I agree with him completely that it doesn't matter who is on this committee, there will be opportunity for concerns and reservations to be addressed anyway and it is a temporary committee.

I totally trust Anna and the core planning people. Rather than nitpick at this stage, I'm more interested in seeing what the JC comes up with.

Specific issues with the proposed bill

This is a proposed bill. It will now be worked on by representatives of the civil society as well as government. It will be examined and passed in the Parliament. There is plenty of opportunity to address areas of concern. Discarding a people's movement because you don't like one point or three is beyond childish.

Random NGO people having power over the government.

Not true. A combined body will select the Lokpal and Lokayukta, but the people selected will be among noted judges and others with a solid credibility for the responsibility they will shoulder. It is these people with a thorough understanding of India's laws who will have the authority.

Judge, jury and executioner

Not true again. The proposed process gives right to take up concerns suo motto, initiate investigations, prosecute and punish, but that doesn't mean that they wake up one morning with a whim to axe a certain figure. It is simply autonomous power independent of political interference. Investigations, prosecutions, punishments are still separate processes and these will be defined with care, or of course will be questioned into being defined before being passed.

We could have fixed existing systems.

So why didn't you? It is easy to criticize something happening and say that something else would have been better, but if it truly would have been better or possible to do, wouldn't it have happened by now? This is like criticizing someone for offering tea rather than something cold on a hot, thirsty afternoon. You could have made something cold, but you didn't, did you?

Anna Hazare is getting some award worth a lot of money

So? Shouldn't he? If these people think it is some kind of corruption, think of what all those Bharat Ratnas and Padmashrees mean. Anna returned one of those rather than sacrifice principles, but let's not talk of that.

Anna an ex-truck driver in the Army, with a talent for sitting crosslegged for long periods of time.

If that is all that this so called intellectual sees in Anna Hazare, he's got bigger problems than what the country is up to, because he is an example of the problems the country faces.

Fasting is a form of terrorism

So is starving a country to its grave by stealing its vital resources. It seems the government has a problem with those that it doesn't starve going on a fast. The millions fasting from lack of food while their theft goes on unconcerned is not a problem. One terrorist killing another seems poetic justice. Funny, no one is in a hurry to drag the government into an anti-terrorism court.

The issue I really see here is that the democracy purists are out of their intellectual comfort zone.

Another issue I see is that there seems to be a lot of contempt for Gandhian methods. This has nothing to do with democracy and is a lot of intellectual masturbation. At the end of the day, it isn't a method that won the day, but the voice of the people. Most of the country was high on anti-corruption energy. The fast was a rallying point, not the reason for people to speak up. Don't believe me? Check out all the vast quantities of words spewed out in these days to see if anyone actually wrote about protesters feeling hungry.

I must admit that the fast was a great idea, because it naturally adds an element of urgency to the protest, which frankly is much deserved terrorism if at all it is terrorism if we consider the existing Lokpal effort marinating in its own sauce for 42 years.

Democracy, Jackie Chan style

What happened was the street fighting style of democracy. Messy, hands on, unpredictable, but very, very real and devastatingly effective. It upset a lot of people who like their democracy tidy and along established lines. Sterile, where concepts like corruption are met with procedures and improved procedures and people are secondary. This messy, sweaty sea of humanity is beneath these people's civil standards. They appear incapable of being wise and seem bound to do something stupid, because these people have never trusted their own instinct, so they don't imagine it is safe for the country. Breaking beyond the norms of established law making seems to have become undemocratic. The people went for what they wanted. I think it is a celebration for our nation that what was essentially an elite club of politicians or another niche of NGOs and activists became a matter of participation for all. Democracy doesn't get more participative than this, and bill or no bill, that itself is a cause for celebration.

Like Jackie Chan fights with the umbrella in his hand without moaning that it isn't a samurai sword, it is time for the doom and gloom club to see that the Lokpal Bill is our umbrella. Its not a Samurai sword, which probably would be better for fighting, but the point is that it is what we have to save our skin. Corrupt politicians being dealt with through existing means would be wonderful, and on paper, we should have been able to do it, but it is beyond evident that this idea works only on paper. Rather than moan about the perfection of the Samurai sword, the time is one of using the umbrella to achieve objective.

It may be argued that one doesn't make a career out of fighting with umbrellas and a less than perfect law will not last the distance once the initial hysteria wears out. But that time is not now. Right now, we need to fix a lot of wrongs on the corruption front, and its urgent. By the time we come to a point where we can evaluate, we don't know what will happen. Perhaps our umbrella will turn out to be good enough. Perhaps we will throw it away and find a sword, or the leg of a table. If nothing, we will have learned valuable, hands on lessons from this umbrella, which will bring effectiveness to further evolution as well.

The past is gone, the future isn't here yet. The present is happening, and its vibrant. Many things could go wrong, but so far, things have gone gloriously right!