Monday, August 27, 2012

Blocking the web... 

            There is indeed an irony that the internet, considered an elitist domain despite the ten million strong netizens across the country, has come to haunt the rulers. The government’s decision, last week, to block over 300 accounts is a case of knee-jerk rather than based on considerations of national security. It may be that a large number of those deserved to be taken off the public domain for they were guilty of distorting the public sphere as understood in the Habermasian sense of the term. Jurgenn Habermas, in his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989), outlined a substantive role for the mass media in the making and the strengthening of the democracy in modern times.  
The concept, indeed, has undergone significant mutations since then and the most significant force towards that has been the leap ahead in technology altering the media ecology in ways that are mindboggling. The advent of the internet and the world wide web has rendered the public sphere into several fragments and thus created ghettoes rather than one unified platform in the couple of decades since Habermas first foregrounded the concept of public sphere. There are, in other words, numerous public spheres today than one unified as envisaged by Habermas.
In times when the traditional media (print) as well as Satellite Television have turned the universal path rather than stay pluralist, the internet provided the space for the many public spheres. In other words, the democratic experiment in India failed to internalise some of the core aspects of the constitutional principles of justice (being social, economic and political in that order); and this reflected in the shrinking space for such concerns in the mainstream media; and the web became the platform for voicing the concerns. There was, however, one major issue in this. And that is the web afforded exclusive spaces for the several concerns rather than an integrated space for a pluralist debate and resolution.
There is, for instance, an exclusive space in the web for a Dalit agenda as much as there is for an anti-social justice agenda. There is then the space for a secular campaign as much as there are spaces for a revanchist or a sectarian campaign. Notwithstanding the absence of any pre-publication censorship in the realm of print or Television, the fact is that these traditional media, which are run as business enterprises too, make it imperative that neither the newspapers nor the private Television channels can reduce themselves to exclusivist agenda only at their own peril. It is another matter that the same concern also leads them, in extraordinary situations, to subvert some of the Constitutional scheme.
The fact that the web as a medium is yet to emerge into a business model and the immense potential in them to desist a business model makes the internet being seen as a viable media to remain a propaganda machine without bothering to amass profits. Add to this the scope for receiving funds, from within and outside the country, to run such projects. Let it be known that the law prohibits newspapers and newsmagazines in the print format where the funds come from abroad. This and the reluctance of our mainstream media to take up campaigns and to indulge in any agenda setting role has made the web the only means in the making of the public sphere. Or so it is made out to be.
Hence it is a problem to either condemn or to stand up in support of the government’s decision to block sites. The fact is that the decision, coming late as it did, had denied it the legitimacy. The damage was done and the exodus from the Southern States to the North Eastern had happened. Only the naive will even argue that the sites could have been blocked earlier than it was and in that event served a purpose. The issue is that of numerous public spheres and in reality there is very little or even hardly any space in the scheme in which the web seeks to address the many concerns of these in as exclusivist a manner as it can. As for instance, there was no way to counter the misinformation on a site even while a counter campaign was possible on another site.
This, however, is only one aspect of the issue. The more serious concern is that such rumours and disinformation could provoke an exodus only in a context. And that context is the crisis of confidence in the state. The poor track record of the state, whether it is in Assam or in Bengaluru, when it comes to protecting the people’s life contributed in large measure to the people in this region believing rumours and taking the spurious messages on their mobile phones and social networking sites with such seriousness and believe them. It is, after all, a fact that the state had failed across the country.
The remedy then lies in demonstrating to the contrary. Not in blocking websites alone. And there is a message to the traditional media too. If the numerous public spheres are to be challenged and if democracy is to be salvaged, it is imperative that the consensus that marked the making of the public sphere is restored.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Well. I am not cynical about Team Anna's decision to float a party

Within minutes after Anna Hazare and his team announced their decision to consider entering the electoral political scene directly, Union Minister Ambika Soni came out with her statement that this is evidence of the group having had a political agenda. Soni’s statement, by implication, meant that only she and her ilk had the right to contest elections and do what they liked and that the average Indian citizen shall restrict himself to choosing between one of her kinds to rule the roost. It is another matter that these were the same people who indicted team Anna for undermining Parliament’s role in political democracy to stress its “supreme” status.
Soni could not think otherwise. Someone who entered the political mainstream during the dark days of the Emergency and being a friend of Sanjay Gandhi in those bad times, cannot be expected to think any other way. Undemocratic means are a natural course to such persons. Be that as it may. The fact is Anna Hazare and his close aides could have decided this way almost a year ago. The eighty-plus year old had captured the imagination of a cross section of the Indian people, including the urban middle class, in August 2011 and rattled the establishment.
The atmosphere then had striking similarities with that in Northern India in November 1973, when JP had galvanised the youth and the students against the establishment. The then establishment, in a declaration from Narora, called him a conspirator and even accused JP of being a CIA agent. Those were times where being called a pro-US person was as bad as being accused of being an anti-national. We now live in another time and being pro-US is considered as good as committed to the nation’s well-being. And after many instances when he and his fellow protestors were beaten in the public and put in jail, JP finally declared that he will lead a political alternative to Indira Gandhi’s Congress in the ensuing elections.
Well. The Congress, after daring JP to prove his point in an election, developed cold feet and invoked Article 352 of the Constitution to postpone the polls. The general elections, due in March 1976 were not held. And when they were held in March 1977, JP proved his point. To cut a long story short, the parallels between then and the present, when Anna Hazare and his team have reluctantly agreed to take the plunge. If one is to choose between lobbying for change, putting pressure for change and trying to be the change, the most democratic option would be the last; to be the change and go to the people seeking their mandate. And when the decision was taken, it was an explicit statement that the two other options did not work.
Even those who agree that going to the people is the best option in a democracy, would argue that Anna Hazare too will face the same fate as did JP. The Janata alternative collapsed and Indira Gandhi returned with a thumping mandate in 1980. Those will also argue that the Janata party also threw up leaders whose record on probity was as bad, if not worse, as those against whom JP rallied forces. It is true that the Janata party ended up as a platform for those who mastered the art of corruption and the BJP, founded out of the Janata’s rubble was no exception.
But then, the Janata Party’s birth was not from the crucible of an anti-corruption crusade that JP launched or the one that was conducted by the students in Gujarat. The experience of the Emergency mediated the phase between the anti-corruption movement and the birth of the Janata. And it is also history that Indira Gandhi, during the emergency, did things that made heroes out of scoundrels. The Emergency regime released a certain kind of opposition leaders prematurely and encouraged them striking deals and thus did all that could be done to discredit the opposition. Recall that the Janata also consisted of a Jagjivan Ram and a H.N.Bahuguna, who were part of the notorious regime from day one and crossed over just when the elections were announced. The sequence of events involving Baba Ramdev, P.Chidambaram and the midnight scoop were indeed similar to that game Indira Gandhi played 35 years ago.
With a sense of history, it is incorrect to blame JP for having glossed over these when he put the Janata Party together. The struggle for restoring political democracy had to be top on the agenda in March 1977. If JP had insisted upon sticking to his priorities as it were before June 25, 1975, the leader would have been condemned guilty of having participated in the destruction of our Republican Constitution. JP responded to the situation and presided over the process of the cobbling up of the Janata Party. Let it be known that the Janata Party was constituted in just 12 days between January 18, 1977 (the day Morarji Desai was released) and January 30, 1977 when the leaders announced the party. JP and his colleagues could not afford a longer time because Indira Gandhi’s strategy was to give the opposition as little time, fox them and ensure victory for her in the elections.
There are lessons for Anna Hazare and his team from this. Team Anna has men who are eminently capable of seeing things. Notwithstanding the naive but earnest Kiran Bedi or an Anupam Kher there, one would expect Shanti Bhushan, an active player in the making of the Janata Party to play another role here. Recall that the elder Bhushan had, in a sense, been one of those catalysts in the making of the crisis then. He had argued the case for Raj Narain against Indira Gandhi’s election from Rae Bareili and the judgment in that case had, in a sense, set the stage for the declaration of the Emergency.
And in the end, unlike some abstract notes that JP had put forth as the agenda and called that a Total Revolution, Team Anna has propounded a concrete draft for an effective legislation against graft. And there lies the hope. The nation can afford to take another chance even while stay prepared for another disappointment and another battle thereafter. This is better than putting up with the crop we have.