August 9, 2016The Hinduliberal democracyinformation age

The digital sarkar must play by constitutional rules

The government must not use its media dominance in unconstitutional and undemocratic ways.

The Hindu This is from my column in The Hindu (2015-2016)

The recent controversy over Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s remarks — that implied that the campaign to punish Aamir Khan by pressuring Snapdeal a company that engaged the actor as a brand ambassador, was orchestrated by a pro-Bharatiya Janata Party team — raises important issues on the government’s proper use of media, especially social media, in a liberal democratic republic.

Now, it is not only desirable but necessary for a government to be in constant communication with the people. The need is even more acute in times of rapid change at home and abroad. We are in such times, with rapid but uneven economic growth, social upheavals at home, and a changing world order abroad. The Modi government has done well in this regard, and the sense of anomie that characterised the United Progressive Alliance government’s second term has been replaced with a sense of direction, even if there are concerns about where we’re all headed.

Welcome developments

A country of 1.2 billion people cannot be governed by silence, and Dr. Manmohan Singh might have done a lot better had he spoken more often. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann Ki Baat’ is therefore a welcome development (but will the powers that be stop spamming our email inboxes and phones with notifications and SMS messages, please?).

Similarly, it is a welcome development that the Modi government is a champion of the use of social media. Thanks to Mr. Modi’s lead, all levels of government now feel compelled to use Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms to engage citizens. Today, our neighbourhood police stations are sending alerts and receiving complaints on Twitter. This phenomenon is not restricted to cities, but even if it were, it would still be a remarkable achievement. Government officials being compelled to expose their decisions and achievements on social media can only be a good thing in a country where part of the bureaucracy’s power comes from controlling access to information.

Let’s be clear, though, on one point: communication is political and cannot be divorced from partisan agenda. The same tool that the Prime Minister uses to engage directly with citizens also builds his image. Where government machinery is used, it gives the incumbent an advantage, although not an unassailable one. However, unlike full-page government advertisements in newspapers, dominance in social media is perhaps more effective in political promotion, as the network effects are stronger. Even so, that’s one more advantage of being in power. It’s par for the course.

Cause for concern

What, then, should we be concerned about? If, as Mr. Parrikar implied, the campaign against Mr. Khan and Snapdeal was carried out by, or at the behest of, the government or the ruling party, then we must be concerned. It would be unconstitutional to use government machinery for the purpose (and it is unlikely that this is the case). It would be reprehensible if it was the ruling party that did it.

Both the Modi government and the BJP have absorbed many individuals who have, before the 2014 election, engaged in sharp behaviour online. While some of them have acted with the responsibility that comes with their office, the distinction between the official, the volunteer, and the inspired supporter is not a clear one.

The BJP cannot be grudged the use of plausible deniability to pursue its political interests, but when it enjoys the benefits of the deniability, it cannot escape the costs of the plausibility. It cannot easily distance itself from the actions of those who act in its support. It will have to contend with the perception that it is involved behind the scenes.

The Modi government cares about what people say on Twitter. This is a good thing, for it can quickly put its side of the argument across in public debate and quickly correct missteps. Yet, in a country where only two in every 10 people have an Internet connection, Twitter is not vox populi. There is a risk that those with a smartphone will disproportionately affect policy. To the extent that the digital haves have a stronger voice than the digital have-nots, the squeakiest wheels will end up with the most grease. But political parties cannot escape the costs of mistaking the voice of the connected as being representative of the voice of society.

The rest of my The Hindu columns are here

It would be in the interests of the government and the BJP if Mr. Modi and Amit Shah, the party president, review their online strategies. They must reconcile with the difference between campaigning and governing. It is true that at any given time there is an election somewhere that needs an aggressive online campaign. However, social media spreads the fever across the country, undermining the social stability that good governance requires. Governance requires a certain broad-mindedness and accommodation of different, even opposing, viewpoints, to carry society along. The Modi government, the BJP and the country will suffer if campaigning becomes the enemy of governing

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