Democracy and the internet

The internet in India is like a nuclear warhead that’s missing the fissile Uranium.

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Elections at IITM were interesting. Candidates weren’t allowed to spend their own money. Candidates weren’t allowed to use their own media. Institute-sponsored “soapbox”es were conducted and places for campaigning were designated. And we aren’t talking about puppet-positions here. Elected representatives were given, under some adult supervision, a reasonable amount of power to conduct business. These elections, such as they were, were publicly financed — the administration (you might call it the government) paid for the elections in entirety.

Pretty much everybody not bought and paid for by the Corporation agrees that elections should be publicly financed. Public financing ensures that candidates take elections seriously and that people with money don’t run away with everything. Public financing doesn’t necessarily have to look like the elections at IITM. Not every candidate has to get the same amount of money for example. What is important is that every voter and every vote gets the same amount of importance.

Is there a reason this shouldn’t work for the country as a whole? Ravikanth asked a few of us this question.

While we don’t really (free airtime on Doordarshan and All-India Radio is given to every political party, apparently… like anybody even watches DD anymore) have publicly financed elections in this country, we do have campaign-spending limits. But these are limits applied on the candidate, and not the party. The most recent iteration of the campaign finance laws in India also make it easy for people and corporations to donate legally to candidates and parties. The problem is, however, that even if contributions are legal, they’re still only capped at 5% of the profits of the company. Which is a huge amount of money and an incredible amount of influence to put into the hands of the people running mega corporations. And all this is without even considering how much ‘black’ money runs elections.

Can we fix this? If the state sponsored every election expense, parties would no longer need their own money to win elections. Which means they wouldn’t need to seek out donors. Which means they wouldn’t need to do backhanded favours for the donors after they come to power. At least in theory, state-financed elections would fix the mess we are in.

I started this post alluding to IITM’s elections being ‘state’-financed. However, IITM is not India. Insofar as attitudes towards sexuality or morality are concerned, perhaps. But otherwise not.

The average IITian is literate; the literacy rate in the country as a whole hangs at around 75%. The average IITian has access to the internet and everything that entails.* In fact, voting at IITM is done online. For the country as a whole, though, the numbers for internet usage are depressing.

This last detail is something that could truly have made a difference. Nobody doubts the power of the internet to rouse or mobilise people. We’ve seen real-life examples in the last year. And it might still happen in this country too. After all, India has seen a mobile telephony revolution. We have the cheapest telephone-calls in the world. And while China still beats us in the number of telephone users, the speed at which mobile access has grown in India is staggering. (If you’re counting, China has a billion telephone users. We have about 900 million.)

Here’s hoping.

[Edit: 19.01.2013: * Aashish Gupta points out that voting at IITM is done at a booth where you login to a computer connected to a central server, which isn’t all that different from the EVMs that are used in India’s elections. I agree. But it is true that at IITM you could read about a candidate for election — manifestos, propaganda, CVs — online.]

3 thoughts on “Democracy and the internet”

  1. I don’t think I have conveyed the question properly when I mailed to you. I don’t think we should bring up IITM’s election at all into the picture. It would just derail our thought process.

    I have done fairly well in school even in Social studies. Even, I am not aware of the tools offered by Democracy for citizens to participate in Governance.

    I dont remember reading Referrendum and Initiative. So far I have gathered that there are four tools for citizens to participate in Democracy and India has only ONE.

    1)Vote
    2)Referrendum
    3)Initiative
    4)Recall

    I was always puzzled at how citizens can participate in Democracy if all you can do is vote once 5 years. If you employ someone, even your servant maid, you have to watch them to make sure they do their job right.

    India has only one instrument “Vote”

    Source: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/our-democracy-must-empower-voters/article3662808.ece

    People not being educated is a lousy reason for not employing this law. If we were to follow that logic we can throw democracy down the drain.

  2. Ravikanth,

    The IITM thing was for the blog, not for you.

    I agree about the citizenry in this country not being empowered. Let’s hope we’ll get there soon.

    If by “this law” you mean giving people the right to call for a ballot initiative or one of the other things you’ve mentioned, then may I point out that we didn’t really have the right to recall or to call for a ballot initiative at IITM? Education is not a guarantee that these options will be available to people or that they should/shouldn’t be.

    But perhaps literacy/education make it easier for people to read about who is saying what about which issue. I was writing about people being able to use the internet usefully, after all.

  3. Insti elections happen every year. Insti elections have another authority(officialese of our Insti) over them. There are quite a few known cases of insti repealing several candidates. Right to recall is not a very useful instrument in case of our institute. This is exactly the reason why I said using insti elections even as a miniature model would derail the discussions.

    Damn you. I just found out that I have a twitter account 😛

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