Sunday, February 28, 2016

Bookmarking some Congress (I) related news from this February

The Congress Party and it's leaders were in the news quite a lot for some "unusual" reasons this month.

1) Rahul Gandhi & Anand Sharma went to the JNU to express support to JNU folks after some of their students had been booked for raising anti India slogans.
We are told, this was in support of Free Speech & Dissent. And of course, for the Idea of India.

2)  Later, they asked for expunging of what they described as "blasphemous" statements made by the HRD minister, who had read out from some previous pamphlets circulated in JNU.

Running with the hare and hunting with the hound ?

By the way, towards the end of January, Congress legislators - yes, the same which stands for Free Speech, asked for hanging Kamlesh Tiwary for -guess what - basically blasphemy in the UP Assembly.

3) It is to be noted that part of the Free Speech being exercised in JNU was on the state killing of Afzal Guru. He had been executed under a Congress led government. Now, P Chidambaran, ex Home Minister and ex Finance Minister of the same Congress led government commented an interview that he had doubts on the correctness of the verdict.
National Interest anyone ? What's that ?

4) Over the last month, a number of senior bureaucrats have come out in the public and basically said that Ishrat Jehan was a terrorist. This includes former NSA M. K, Narayanan,   Former IB Special Director Rajinder Kumar claimed that Congress tried to allure him to falsely implicate Narendra Modi in the encounter. And then former Home Secretary G.K. Pillai claimed that LeT links of Ishrat Jehan were possibly dropped by P Chidambaram in the Center's affidavit.

As Rahul Gandhi had once said - Politics is everywhere. Even in matters of National Security & Counter Terrorism ?

5) Finally, there are audio clips in circulation of an aide of ex CM B. Hooda attempting to instigating riots during the violent agitations by the Jat community in Haryana for reservations.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Concentric Circles of Power and Policy Making

I wrote about how the Indian Right had managed to make a major dent in the outer circle of popular politics, but is yet to fully get into the vital inner circle of policy making and execution in SwarajyaMag here.

Here is the post in full:

In September, 2015 - Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended a townhall at Facebook Headquarters in California. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook conducted the townhall - which was broadcast live across the world on YouTube among others. For an Indian, here were two men who illustrated the power of Social Media enormously and the democratization of popular discourse.

Mark Zuckerberg revolutionized social media and communication through Facebook - 1.4 Billion users on his platform is a simple proof of his impact. Narendra Modi - won a massive mandate in 2014, and his campaign's use of social media including Facebook played a major part in reaching out to the masses directly without the intervention of the mainstream media (MSM). 


Over the past year or two, we have seen the power of alternate and social media in Indian elections and not just in the BJP victory in 2014, but also in their defeats in Delhi & Bihar. The AAP victory in Delhi was based on an extremely tech savvy campaign run by their volunteers while Prashant Kishore helped Laloo-Nitish beat the BJP in Bihar with an innovative campaign. In these times of Twitter, Facebook & WhatsApp, public engagement and debate is on the rise, the Indian electorate seems to be a far more active participant in democratic debates than in the past, where it was more of a passive consumer of news and narrative generated from newsrooms.

Over the last few years, another major impact of social media has been to influence the coverage of MSM channels. Today, factual inaccuracies get called out immediately and editorial double standards are exposed ruthlessly on social media. Occasionally, relentless - yes outrage also forces MSM channels to cover "inconvenient incidents" like the recent riots in Malda. The Malda riots for instance did receive decent coverage - albeit late by a few days, instead of it being completely ignored - which was probably what would have happened in the absence of social media pressure.

In this column, Sanjeev Sanyal writes that the process of taming of India's Elites is well on its way. From evicting high profile squatters in Lutyens' bungalows to court cases against the "First family" of the country, there is a sense that at last India’s elites are being held accountable to the common rule of law. 

So, we are seeing a more active participation from the masses in the electoral process; and a more informed and animated conversation on issues which matter to the public; a challenge and a counterpoint to the narrative of the MSM, especially the English News Channels;  and also a beginning of holding India's Elites accountable to the rule of law. So has the balance of power shifted decisively from the Left to the Right or from the Elites to the Masses? Not quite.


A little under two years of the Narendra Modi government now, and many supporters are slowly realizing how difficult it is for the government to implement its agenda, with the lack of numbers in Rajya Sabha being felt ever more acutely. But numbers aside, real power and clout still seems to be trapped in an elite ecosystem of Judges, Bureaucrats, "Five Star Activists", Think Tanks and NGOs. 

Many people were quite peeved on the story of Supreme Court Judges being approached at midnight to deliberate on the mercy petition of a convict to be hanged. But even leaving aside matters of life and death, we are seeing hitherto unseen judicial activism. This has been noted widely by many in the media. Bloomberg View commented that it was not Prime Minister Narendra Modi but the courts that were running the show in India. Not only have the honorable courts ruled unconstitutional the NJAC act which was passed by India's parliament; but of late have been pontificating on all sorts of issues. For instance, The Nagpur Bench of the High Court advised the public to stop paying taxes to protest against government corruption! Among other things, Courts have themselves decided to double the taxes on diesel vehicles entering Delhi, while also getting involved in religious matters like entry into temples or local folk customs like Jallikattu; the list of dubious judicial overreach is never ending.

The recent TRAI decision on Net Neutrality was another interesting episode to observe the exercise of influence and power in India’s policy making circles. Indian tech entrepreneurs & “Net Neutrality” activists came together in a big way to campaign and were eventually successful in convincing India's telecom regulator to disallow discriminatory pricing and thereby effectively shut out Facebook's offering of a few websites for no cost. To give an idea of the scale of the organized campaign, 457 companies signed a single letter opposing Facebook’s Free Basics, while more than 800 founders wrote a letter to the Prime Minister explaining how it was a bottleneck to India’s Start-Up Industries on the verge of a take-off right now. There were good arguments to be made on both sides and the debate did not split down the usual Left - Right split that we have on most issues but one cannot help but observe (and indeed admire) that the argument was won by the side that was more organized, put more effort into it and had more skin in the game. And in this process, one does feel that India’s unconnected masses for whom this product was aimed, remained under-represented in the consultation process. Nevertheless, those who made the case for Net Neutrality, can also be described as India's new elites. They are members of Policy Think Tanks, Activists, Start-up Entrepreneurs & Venture Capitalists – and over the next few years we are bound to see increasing influence and pressure from these groups to shape public policy in India according to their vision.

What is interesting is also not what captures the interest of India's elites and MSM, but also what is totally excluded by them in their conversations. Take the case of Right to Education (RTE). It is conspicuous by its absence in almost any sort of conversation that you see either on television or print media. It is almost singularly ignored in India's plethora of weekly Op-Ed columns and the truth is that apart from a few discerning folks on Social Media - the sectarian nature of the law is actually unknown to almost any middle class Indian - who is otherwise well informed. When India's leading intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta made a passing reference to what is today only a Right Wing angst on social media, I was astonished enough to bookmark it for future reference. This one paragraph in which he talks about both the incredible double standards of morality being practiced around banning Jallikattu and the sectarian nature of RTE is worth mentioning here: 

"The third faultline is how difficult it is to find a secular language in which to articulate common meanings on moral and political issues. The jallikattu case is interesting because it shows the difficulty of articulating a common understanding of cruelty. Defenders of the tradition have a point that on any conceivable measure of cruelty to animals, we tolerate far more in the name of religion or even our eating habits. If the application of a standard of cruelty to animals is not to appear arbitrary, it will have to involve a far-reaching transformation of our practices. The growing resentment over RTE exemptions to minority schools raises the question of whether this issue necessarily needed to be framed in terms of minority and majority. Could we not have found a way to conduct this argument through a consideration of what first-principles thinking on freedom of association and property would look like. Instead, the organisation of education has already been legally communalised with the imprimatur of the court. The question is: Can issues like cruelty to animals, freedom of association, gender justice, non-discrimination in civil society, all elements of a secular morality, be articulated in a way that they become an object of “overlapping consensus”, to use Rawls’s famous phrase. And can they be enforced in ways that do not reinforce the sense of communal competition, state arbitrariness? Unfortunately, the courts are not yet providing a framework that produces clarity on these issues. And our politics, of course, never takes any bull by the horns."
This article, however remains a rare exception from India's secular-liberal ecosystem. The grip of India's elites, dynastic or otherwise, has possibly slipped a little in terms of the narrative of politics, but it remains stronger than ever in the realm of policy making and execution.

There's a saying in the west that Right of center parties are in political office once in a while but it is only the Left which is able to exercise power. India's experience till date has been completely in line with this. And so, while those who are of a Right of Center persuasion, have made a dent in the outer circle of power - which is electoral politics, like the young Abhimanyu of Mahabharata, they lack the know how to penetrate through the inner circles of Chakravyahu of power so far - which is policy making and execution. India's Right Wing, which is a very large umbrella, needs to add institutionalized intellectual heft to build on its current popular appeal among the masses. Without that, the various tenures of a Right Wing Government at the center or various states, will feel like missed opportunities to many of its followers.  

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