Tuesday, August 23, 2011

INDIAN DEMOCRACY: CHANGE IS HERE

Well before Change arrives, discrete signs of the impending tumult start appearing, with increasing frequency and magnitude. Unfortunately, it is often in hindsight that seemingly stray straws are seen for what they really are: pearls on one string.

In 1947, we inherited -- and have persisted with -- 19th century colonial laws, administration, judiciary, police and other institutions of governance. In 1950, we gave ourselves a constitution that promised democracy to the people, but through a copy-pasted model that was developed over centuries by and for a tiny, almost-unitary, and culturally very different society for itself.

In sum, for creating an India of tomorrow, we placed our trust in instruments of yesterday.

The constitution has held till now, as have the electoral process and other institutions of state. And this achievement, more than anything else, is being used by those who have most benefitted from it to resist sorely needed changes which will, and must, pull them down from the colonial perches they seamlessly slid into after Independence.

Ironically, the Change that is threatening them was actually unleashed by them to shape public opinion and discourse to suit their requirements.

The completely unexpected and unprecedented support that Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption has generated contains some extremely important lessons, some of which I had discussed in the previous post. Perhaps the most fundamental message that the hundreds of thousands of young men and women out on the streets today are conveying is that they are no longer ready to wait indefinitely for politicians to deliver on issues that affect them directly, and are ready to force Change, if required.

Supremacy of Parliament and sanctity of the electoral process are the two arguments that opponents of Change offer to deride this upsurge, if not uprising. MPs are elected by the people to frame laws, win elections if you have a problem with what they are doing: this is their standard line.

Unfortunately for them, this is not 1947 or 1950, when a long oppressed, diffident people, led by outstanding, unelected leaders, were elated with the first flushes of freedom. The world has changed beyond imagination in the last six decades, and two generations later, the youth are not timorous like their grand parents -- they have as direct a memory of colonial rule as they have of other periods long past – and they see leaders of today as plunderers disinterested in, and disconnected from, them.

But above all, the most profound change that is driving the Change we are beginning to experience is the information revolution. 850 million mobile phones and a rapidly growing access to the internet have ushered in a social media revolution whose impact and power is re-writing the rules of democracy itself.

There were huge expectations when visual media was freed of government control. People were fed up of tightly controlled government manipulation of news and discussions, and were excited by the prospect of getting ‘real’ news from a free media. Daily voting on questions picked and debated by various news channels empowered them for the first time beyond the ballot box, and gave them a sense of participation like they had never experienced. Every day they got a real idea of the views of a significant section the population on live issues.

Politicians quickly realised that they could use free media by a mix of inducements and threats to shape and distort public opinion enough to alter voting choices of a critical numbers, to change defeat into victory. The people would never get to know, they reckoned, that it was almost DD all over again, without the give-away logo.

Tehelka's sting operation of 2001 and the Pink Chaddi drama of 2009 were two politically motivated campaigns that successfully achieved their objectives of damaging the BJP, and underlined the enormous power of the visual media in influencing, even determining, electoral outcomes.

Media business in India has been slave to the government of the day, and is now even more so, because the stakes are higher than ever before, making paid news and worse extremely lucrative. Media is, therefore, as status quo loving as politicians. The Anna phenomenon would have been successfully discredited and buried by it had a new 'media moghul’ not burst upon the scene from nowhere and fundamentally altered the rules of the information and opinion-making game.

Almost a crore and a half missed calls to Anna’s anti-corruption team, crores of sms messages exchanged about Anna and his anti-corruption campaign, and a free, informed, unbiased debate by well-informed netizens -- 21st century, often-ahead-of-the-curve reporters and opinion makers whom people trust – are the prime drivers of the revolution that we are seeing at Ramlila Maidan and all over the country.

The media – honorable exceptions apart – is being compelled to cover Anna; for the first time, it is following, not leading a campaign. Even more importantly, for the first time, people are not being influenced by the propaganda regularly unleashed by ‘experts’ and shallow, opinionated anchors who have held sway till now: the fast-growing web of social media is their new voice, one that will only grow louder. In fact so stung are some media stars by the almost brutal manner in which they have been sidelined, and their ‘Radia’ agenda lit up, that they have refused to cover this unfolding of history from Ground Zero right outside their doorstep.

What we are seeing on the streets is, at one level, the largest ever ‘opinion poll’ or survey ever conducted in India on an issue. Till now, the media was setting the agenda, quoting votes, blogs, tweets etc. of a few thousand – sometimes ever creating false handles to fake results/trends – to tell a believing India as to what its 'real' opinion was on various socio-political issues. Aided by unprecedented connectivity, Anna and his team have snatched that initiative from the middlemen-messengers by reaching people direct with their message.

Elections are a lot less about issues than they are about arithmetic. That is why politicians have become so arrogant and dismissive of the people. They have gamed this deeply flawed process to near-perfection by dividing themselves and voters along every usable fault line. This has effectively removed people from the process of governance and turned them into subjects who, even if they vent their anger after five years, can do little more than choose from among the small pool of the ruling elite that has realised that it can keep doing what it wants to, till election time, and that an election loss is temporary; no matter what they do, their opponents will do no better, and a helpless minority of voters will swing back and give them one more chance.

It is this effective disenfranchisement of the people that emboldened the government to do what it did to Anna Hazare in April, to Baba Ramdev in June and again to Anna now. It is this dis-empowerment that people are revolting against. It is this Change that politicians are either unable to grasp or unwilling to submit to.

The age of real-time connectivity and dissemination of information is here. And it is not one-way. A citizen with a mobile phone or an internet connection is no longer a passive, isolated recipient of news; he is also a creator and disseminator of it. He is an independent, one-man media house. He is not going to wait for five years to express his opinion through a vote that, for 65 years, has not addressed issues that touch him. He is not going to accept the argument that a ‘supreme’ Parliament is the private property of a few hundred individuals between elections.

These are ideas and instruments that were developed in, and were suited to, the age of pigeon carriers, horse-driven carriages and ships powered by oars and wind, by societies tentatively breaking free of the clutches of absolute monarchy. In 21st century, politicians cannot hide behind them and deny to people the power that should be theirs in a democracy. People have a right to demand day-to-day accountability from the people they have chosen to govern their nation. Thanks to technology, they now can.

Anna's movement may be crushed again by politicians. But what is of real significance is that, for the first time, people have come together, and experienced and expressed their power, without latching onto a political leader or party. They will come back again and again, stronger, better organised. If politicians do not learn, at some point they will turn violent too, with unpredictable results.

The days of treating a distorted democracy like a fixed-term dictatorship are over. Change is here. The sooner our politicians get a fix on this, the better.
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