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What's there to vote for?

As India gears up for polls, Prabashi Post publishes excerpts from Hindol Sengupta’s book, "100 Things to Know And Debate Before You Vote".

Hindol Sengupta
Wed, Mar 5 2014

About Hindol

Hindol Sengupta is the Editor-at-Large, Fortune India. Author of five books, he is the founder of the Whypoll Trust, which specialises in open government using technology and design.


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This, around us, is a strange disquiet. Have you felt it? For more than a year, or was it two, the breathless air has smelt of something about to happen, and on the streets, on blinking screens, the velocity of all that we have wanted to say for so long a time, and now, all at once, it is coming out, stammering, stuttering, in a tripping babble.

It is not the past we crave, it is not nostalgia, which is so often an affectation of the elite, but we are those who mourn the future that never quite arrived, and for a while now, seems irretrievably delayed. We are those whose per capita hope refuses to live up to its initial market potential.

There is an election coming, its approach complete with the slowness of a storm. But we in India, so proud and petulant about our democracy, are used to elections here and there in our multi-coloured ways every season. What, then, is different?

Sometimes in the varied histories of old, old countries, there comes that time when the gossip in the capital begins to smell like rotten food, or fish. It is the smell of the shedding of skin, also change.

In the newspapers they say are dying as the people sleep with their screens, posted and hash-tagged in almost clean linen, but afraid of missing a single update, some say all revolutions, even those that remain only in the mind, smell like this.

When you step out, in a few weeks, to colour your nail black, and cast – do they call it cast because it is as whimsical, and equally numbing, as fishing – your vote, what will you be thinking? Will you be thinking of what you could have been, even become, and have? Or, haven’t? Will you think of battles, hard fought and won, even lost? Will you think of the promise of democracy – that in the journey you shall find yourself?

This will be an election which will be what elections rarely are – not just about what the grand future idea of India will be but equally about what the idea of who you will be in the future, a vote as a private crystal ball, a poll as a palm reading.

If you are going to vote in a few weeks, you would have felt this fragility, this sense of collective mortality that makes democrats of citizens. There is a sense that this is the end. But an end of what exactly? And what, precisely, follows?

We have some of the worst roads in the world, our air is poisoned, we drink polluted water, in disease we are consistent world beaters but not so in Olympian sport, or efficiency, or honesty. In almost every global parameter of development, we are at the bottom. Tens of thousands die of ill-treatment every year, millions more are impoverished by the cost of healthcare. There is fraud everywhere, even at our National Library. But what we get for national debate – even before a vital election – is name calling, abuse and derision. Our leaders are so accustomed to thinking of us in the mute that they laugh that it is enough to give us some entertainment, some ring fighting, for if the people get the lion fight, why should they ask for governance?

In reality, an election is not so much about answers, though some answers it certainly provides, but also questions, introspections into who we are and what we should have been, perhaps failed to become. All elections, then, are exercises in sociological séances where the spirits of the past cast long shadows on our present, even future. Does that not sound a bit like this trumpeted national battle between Rahul Gandhi of the Congress and Narendra Modi of the BJP? But they are not the only ones lumbering towards glory. Every state, every village has gamblers and game-changers. The comprehensive bet of the aam aadmi is almost too awkward to contemplate. But bet we shall – all of us and the 160 million who will be us for the first time - the choice is upon us and this book is about 100 things you might want to think about before you cast that vote. Which way will you toss?

Excerpt from 100 Things to Know And Debate Before You Vote

“Why the Prime Minister's Office Blocked Me

No matter what model you choose, an iPad weighs less than 1 kilogram. That’s substantially less than 3 kilograms, figured Vice President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Hamid Ansari.

His assigned committee, headed by then Rajya Sabha Secretary General V. K. Agnihotri, discovered that each member of the Rajya Sabha was getting between 1 and 3 kilograms of paper documents every day - everything from legislative bills, questions and answers, notices, they even found that the members were getting printed menus from the eateries in Parliament.

And so it was that the Rajya Sabha MP s, and their bretheren in the Lok Sabha, got Rs. 50,000 to buy an iPad (or if they so choose, a Samsung Galaxy Tab).

Now one is not quite sure by what amount this has brought down the paper piles in parliament but there is one way to try and understand the technological embrace of our politicians and parliamentarians. It is interesting that the entire conversation of politics on social media in India is seen through the prism of adoption and not use.

We are very concerned about who is appearing on Facebook and Twitter and what they are saying there, but almost never bothered about what the politicians actually do on these platforms.

There is one reason for this. We are used to a system where politicians have no accountability and we have no access to them. What has happened with social media is the same thing that happens with people who appear frequently on television and film stars and the public at large. You feel that you know these people, who have a say, even though you actually don’t.

For a country used to a relationship of distance and servility with the people in charge even this small sense access is overwhelming, and therefore our collective excitement that we can - fascinatingly - actually see what our politicians are thinking minute to minute, day to day. Even if that access if completely controlled and curated by them, not us.

That’s why perhaps it is time we need to measure social activity by politicians on critical factor of interactivity. How much do politicians interact with the people? Now the immediate counterpoint to this would be that politicians with large numbers of followers would naturally also draw many trolls and abusive, irrelevant comments.

But that argument does not entirely hold true if you study the threads of most Indian politicians. You will notice one common thing - most of them use social media like a loud speaker. It amplifies what they want to say to many, many people but like with the pamphlets and the loudspeakers, no questions can be asked, no answers offered. Most of social media used by politicians in India is not social at all for it is not a conversation. It is a monologue. Can we get them to converse and respond?

I got some evidence of this from @netaspeak - an account my open government foundation Whypoll created to curate a daily question and answer between people and politicians. We defined our job as merely this - no abuse, no trolling but relevant serious questions every day to politicians on Twitter. We wanted to create a sense of conversation on governance. We believed it would ease some of the acute trust deficit that Indian politics faces today.

Almost immediately, we realised that none of the biggest politicians ever reply. Rahul Gandhi (@BewithRG, there is some confusion on whether this is the account that Gandhi uses but among the many on his name, this seems to be the best updated with serious and verifyable information) does not. Nor does Narendra Modi(@narendramodi). Sharad Pawar (@Pawar_Sharad) does not. Nor does Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwarajbjp) (though she at least has engaging conversations with fellow politician tweeple like Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who is at @abdullah_omar).

None of the chief minister - from Mamata Banerjee (not from any of the three accounts in her name), Nitish Kumar (@NitishKumarJDU), Ashok Gehlot (@ashokgehlot51), Shivraj Singh Chouhan (@ChouhanShivraj), Oomen Chandy (@Oomen_Chandy) to Manohar Parrikar (@manoharparrikar) - actually ever respond.

Nor do most of the Members of Parliament. In fact, the Twitter account of Manish Tewari, the minister in charge for information and broadcasting, is actually protected! You cannot immediately follow him or see his tweets. A request has to be sent for you to be veted and approved to follow him. Is it not curious that the minister for information and broadcasting should have a protected Twitter feed? Isn’t that an odd sign of open government? Surely someone in his office can scan and filter out the trolls and abuse?

We realised how serious this question of openness on social media is when @net speak was blocked by the account of the prime minister @PMOIndia. Why? Did we abuse? Troll the account of the prime minister’s office?

No.

It happened like this. The economist Surjit Bhalla wrote an article in The Financial Express where he challenged the official government estimates on the Food Security Bill. The combative economist, who had been accused of “molesting” data to prove his point by Biraj Patnaik, the food expert and Principal Adviser to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court, said this as the last paragraph of his piece:

“This is an open challenge to Ms Sonia, and Dr Manmohan Singh and Mr P Chidambaram. Your minions are stating that the ordinance induced FSB will only increase by about 25% and will amount to 1% of GDP. I get a conservative increase of 336%, or a total subsidy level of 3% of GDP with an honest implementation of the Bill, sorry ordinance. One of us is massively wrong. I believe it is not me. But prove it otherwise.”

To which, @netaspeak asked on Twitter, who is wrong, who is lying about the data - the PMO or Surjit Bhalla?

We asked this to the Twitter account of the PMO, Congress Spokesperson Digvijay Singh and Pankaj Pachauri, the communications adviser to the prime minister. To begin with, we were delighted that Pachauri wrote back tagging Bhalla and pointing to a piece written by Swaminathan A. Aiyar, the veteran economic journalist.

We immediately tweeted back a thank you saying very pleasantly surprised to see a response. “Kudos for the response”, we wrote.

Then, we were blocked from the accounts of both the PMO and Pachauri. And in spite of many protestations on Twitter, we remain blocked. We don’t know why.

But there is some hope in this space.

Shashi Tharoor, who often says that he has learnt from personal experience of the “cattle class controversy” on what to say and what not to say on Twitter, continues to be effervescent and forthcoming, if more guarded than before, with responses, and that has not changed much whether he is an MP or minister. Baijayant Panda of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) retains a delicious sense of humour and responds. Omar Abdullah can be quite forthcoming and none of his tweets sound like a slogan.

But they are the exceptions that prove the rule that the Indian politician loves only the sound of their own voice - even when tweeting.

Will having a paid for iPad (or Tab) change that? No. We can only hope that it will.”

Link to the Hindol’s book in Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00IJMJBL0

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