Wednesday, May 21, 2014

It might finally be hip to be Hindu

Indians, ever a chatty lot, are obsessed with the idea of being obsessed with social media. That is why, as the BJP’s stunning victory in the Indian general elections was declared, the news media immediately began to examine the impact of social media campaigning in the elections. Numbers aside, the victory over social media has revealed the fault lines of Indian society as it stands today.

India’s online population is small as compared to its offline population – about 213 million users to 1.2 billion people – but it is growing. Though these figures expand and contract depending on whom you ask, we do know that 33 million are on Twitter and Facebook has hit the 100 million-user mark. Given these statistics, it is indeed impressive that India’s newest Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has 4.2 million followers on Twitter already. The would-be leader of opposition, Rahul Gandhi, whose party did not win enough seats to actually assume the seat as leader of the opposition in parliament, isn’t on Twitter. However, his party has an account, with about 181,000 followers. There are other political stars on social media, including individual members of various parties, and notably, members of the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party.

However, when asked the question: “who won the social media war” – because, to be sure, there was one – the answer can only really be Narendra Modi. In fact, his own campaign machinery was so well oiled that his personal profile overshadowed his party.  “Ab ki baar, Modi Sarkar” (this time, a Modi government) was arguably the catchiest slogan on the campaign and it inspired many a joke, including a takeover of the nursery rhyme – “twinkle, twinkle, little star, ab ki baar, Modi sarkar!”  And according to reports, the BJP was mentioned on Twitter, on average, about 30,000 times a day, with the Congress trailing behind at between 15,000-20,000. Modi’s victory tweet promising a better India after election results were declared was retweeted 69,872 times.
Truthfully, there is no way that social media could have supplanted the traditional route. Modi’s tireless campaigning – 437 rallies, 5,827 public interface events across 25 states that is a distance of 300,000km – is impressive. But, equally impressive was the BJP’s entire digital campaign effort; a “social media war room” that reportedly cost Rs 35 lakh (35,000 GBP), with 30 computers and about 50 volunteers, tracking activities across India’s 92,000 villages. And accounts from insiders, young professionals, many whom took sabbaticals from their jobs to participate in this campaign, talks of a breathless environment, where Facebook was used to crowdsource ideas for speeches, and ‘Mission 272’ (in terms of how many seats they were aiming to win) became a reality. In fact, many creative contributions from BJP’s supporters – videos, jingles, songs and poems – can be found on the website.

At the same time, social media has been very revealing about the state of the Indian majority. The tonality of political discourse over the internet, which was very polarized between the Hindu rightwingers and secularists saw vicious language, trolling and hate speech dotting the landscape. However, the Hindu right, abused as communal in the time of the Congress government have emerged victorious and unapologetic about their political leanings. In public groups on Google Plus, cyber Hindus declare that a “pro Hindu lobby is not an option, but a sheer necessity.” In fact, the ‘liberal’ discourse that sweeps much of the mainstream English media was taken aback at the sweeping victory that the BJP has earned in this election. There is nervousness that the BJP, supported and guided by the RSS – Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—a right-wing, nationalist group espousing strict discipline, martial training and self sacrifice in defence of the Motherland, often derided for being extremist – will work towards a majoritarian agenda where minorities will find less space to exist. These fears are compounded by the RSS’s beliefs – formalized in annual reports – that seek to impose a strict moral code that frowns upon live-in relations, homosexuality and also keeping an eye on minority communities. The RSS has being heartened by educated Indians joining their cause via social media, thereby signaling that their views might no longer be frowned upon as extreme or communal. They do not want to apologize for representing the view of the Hindu right.

And on cue, Narendra Modi, in a rousing speech formally accepting his role as the leader of the majority party in Parliament, promised his fellow BJP MPs that by the birth anniversary of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya in 2016, co-founder of the Bharitiya Jan Sangh that later became the BJP as known today, India shall rise to its promise of being a great nation. Tying down his campaign promises to his deep association with the RSS, the signal is clear. Indeed, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former Prime Minister, had affirmed proudly that “the Sangh is my soul”. The Hindu is back in Hindustan (another name for India).

An analysis in India Today magazine has declared the Indian cybersphere ‘saffron’ (the color associated with the Hindu right) writing, “But their agenda is a mix of post-modern and traditional. They oppose dynasty politics, particularly the Nehru-Gandhi clan and its allies such as Shiv Sena. They call minority appeasement ‘pseudo-secularism’ with such fervour that their sentiment could easily be interpreted as Hindu supremacist or anti-Muslim. They are against lower-caste reservation, particularly because it is poorly implemented. They are concerned about internal security. But above all, they are against corruption.” In deconstructing the ways of the Hindu saffron social media user, the article offers certain clues, such as the words “proud”, “patriot” and “Hindu” appearing in their bios, and often uploading images of Hindu gods as their display picture.

The people have spoken. The media is filled with analysis that people have either embraced Modi for his Hindu leanings, or ignored them in order realize the dream of “development” that is has promised to deliver. The number of Muslim MPs in parliament is down to 21 from 30 in the last session, the lowest number since India’s first elections.  The Congress and its allies, who built careers on carefully constructed platforms of secularism – in their first term, they had a Muslim President, Sikh Prime Minister and Christian leader of the party – have been set aside in favour of a openly religious and Hindu BJP. Whatever be the reasons for the vote, for the everyday people tweeting and Facebooking, it appears that being pro-Hindu is slowly being disassociated with being communal. For many, this is a relief.

It seems it might finally be hip to be Hindu.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The need for speed?

A friend recently blogged about the Indian elections and wrote in his post about a tweet from the Aam Admi Party’s Somnath Bharti, in frustration as he wasn’t able to upload a video of his party workers being beaten up in Amethi, that he would have done so if the broadband would have been better. It struck my friend as funny, at the time, but it struck me as very telling. Amethi could be considered one of India’s VIP constituencies, a stronghold of the Gandhi family. Even an offhand comment about the inadequacy of the quality of broadband exposes how far away India really is from not just proving the internet to its people, but providing quality access. It also made me wonder how governments of the day blame YouTube for their communal law and order problems, given that YouTube is painfully slow to load in New Delhi itself most of the time – but I digress.

If TV adverts were anything to go by, India is nodding along to “what an Idea sirjee” and a plethora of celebrities are using 3G to post silly videos of each other. Urban youth have no concerns outside Facebook and Twitter, and everyone seems to have only content to create, with the speed of broadband a given.

And then there is the mainstream media which reports on what “Twitter” is saying about any given subject, and either feeds off gossip and opinions on the social media platform or then tries to lead the discussion over there by asking its patrons to tweet using hashtags.  Just to put it in context, India’s Twitter base is roughly 33 million, which is 2.75% of India’s entire population.

And, as far as the two national parties go, the BJP manifesto speaks of an innovative and technology driven society that is globally competitive. It mentions e-government at some length. The Congress manifesto too, talks of connecting every village in India with broadband in three years to open ‘vast new opportunities’, but no specific employment opportunities in urban and sei-urban areas. Currently, Karnataka, which boasts of India’s IT hub Bangalore, is under a Congress government. On another note, the Aam Aadmi Party, India’s first urban underdog political party talks about using information technology to promote transparency and reduce corruption in government. There is no other specific reference to the potential of the internet in India.

In fact, outside official lines in party mandates (and the most in the BJP’s), this election season has slowly seen the campaigns devolve from talk of development to the usual caste and communal equations. Therefore, it might be pertinent for them to be reminded about what is at stake right for the country in the coming years.

The numbers speak for themselves, released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. As of February 2014, the number of broadband subscribers in India was 14.80 million, about 1.71% up from the previous month. Growing even more rapidly are the number of users access the internet through their mobiles or dongles, which stood at 42.81 million in February 2014, a growth of 2.05% from January 2014. The top five wired broadband providers in India are BSNL (9.98 million), Bharti (1.39 million), MTNL (1.10 million), YOU Broadband (0.37 million) and Beam Telecom (0.37 million). As for the top wireless broadband service providers, there is Bharti (10.60 million), Reliance (6.98 million), Idea (6.50 million), BSNL (6.38 million) and Vodafone (6.14 million).

Studies analyze the potential of the internet not just in social terms, but economic. A McKinsey report published in December 2013 called “Online and Upcoming: The Internet’s Impact on India” reveals that the Internet contributes 1.6% of India’s GDP, roughly $30 billion. The report says this could grow to 2.8 to 3.3% by 2015 if India achieves its potential for growth with respect to the number of Internet users and Internet technology-related consumption and investment. However, according to a joint report by KPMG and ASSOCHAM, India is currently losing about 70% of its new business in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry to competitors like Philippines and Eastern Europe. This is in part because of rising costs in bigger metros, and the lack of English speaking employees. The solution lies not just in vocational training schemes but also in moving these offices to tier 2 and tier 3 cities. Not taking swift action could cost approximately $30 billion in foreign exchange earnings.

In country that ranks 123 in the world when it comes to average broadband connection speed and 125 in average peak connection speed, according to the ‘State of the Internet’ report by Akamai, this is a serious challenge. For example, in India, a broadband leader like Airtel offers speeds from 1 Mbps up to a maximum of 100 Mbps (on fiber based broadband network in urban Delhi) while in Guna,(a small town in MP),  the range of offered broadband speed is from 512 kbps to 2 Mbps. In rural areas, BSNL offers speeds of 512 kbps to 2 mbps. However, experts say that the difference between actual and promised speed varies a lot from place to place. The actual speed could range from 90% but go as low was 20% of what is advertised. This is dependent on the network and the customer premise equipment. For all this to improve, a sense of urgency needs to enter the Indian market. As Rajan Anandan, Managing Director of Google India, said in a recent interview, “nobody in the world except India defines 512 kbps as broadband.” Late in 2013, the government of India cleared a proposal to provide three internet connections and one wi-fi hotspot in each of the 2.5 lakh gram panchayats spread across the country. The project should be completed by March 2016. The plan is to provide 100 Mbps broadband speeds to all the gram panchayats in the country.

In terms of mobile broadband, ‘the next big thing’ according to numbers, there is still a while to go. Telecom providers are aggressively offering 3G services and the use of smartphone in India is on the rise. However, following complaints about the quality of service, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has started a consultation process for setting minimum download speeds of 1Mbps for 3G connections and 56Kbps for 2G connections.

Ultimately, both the spread and speed of the internet in India will have a direct impact on India’s economy. But that’s not all. Somnath Bharti and million others will be able to upload videos and tweet – be they of political relevance or not. India’s e-government schemes will find faster delivery of services. Sectors like e-commerce will be able to grow. And India’s IT and ITES sectors, which contribute up to 9% of the country’s GDP, will also remain in the race to be a sure avenue for employment and income generation.

That certainly deserves a mention in a campaign speech!

India’s public service broadcaster at center of political row

The India media is the subject of the news yet again. This time though, the private news channels — the usual suspects – are only reporting the news. Instead, the latest war of words among politicians has thrown the public service broadcaster, Doordarshan, into the limelight.

Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was interviewed by Doordarshan, and it appears that comments he made about a friendship with a senior member of the ruling Indian National Congress were edited out of the final interview. The news broke on social media, and immediately the channel was accused of censoring the statements that might make Congress seem too chummy with their sworn opposition.

The CEO of Doordarshan, Jawhar Sircar, in a letter to the board of Prasar Bharti, the autonomous body that runs the channel, made it very clear that the public broadcaster does indeed suffer from government interference. Reportedly, Sircar wrote in his letter that there has been a lost opportunity to convince a “young minister to break this long traditional linkage between the ministry and the News Division, which has continued unabated long after Prasar Bharati was born and assigned its distinct role in 1997”. This is a direct reference to the current Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Manish Tewari. In the same report, carried by the Economic Times, a member of the Congress have rubbished this claim, saying that Sircar is “merely currying favour with the new dispensation as he had never raised the issue of autonomy earlier”.

Narendra Modi interview isn’t the first time Sircar has brought up the question of autonomy for the broadcaster. Sircar’s personal website carried news items relating to “freeing Prasar Bharti from government control”, papers that suggest DD could follow the BBC’s annual license fee model, as well as older news items about how the channel, under the Congress-led UPA government has previously neglected to give Narendra Modi the kind of airtime the private channels have accorded. For his part, Minister Tewari has made a statement that “autonomy of Prasar Bharti is guaranteed by an act of Parliament. I&B ministry has an arms length relationship with Prasar Bharti”.

One can be sure the complaints about airtime will be flipped around if another party forms the government. Therefore, politics aside, the basic question needs to be addressed: despite an autonomous status, does the government in fact wield undue influence over Prasar Bharti (which includes radio as well)?

The current structure of the public broadcaster stands as such: the Prasar Bharti is an autonomous body that answers to the Parliament of India through the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. All of its staff are officers recruited through the Union Public Service Commission, and are transferred to their positions at Prasar Bharti after having served in other government departments. There is belief that this might be the reason for the “government” mindset shown in the two directorates under the body; All India Radio or Akashvani, and Doordarshan, the television broadcaster. In fact, till 1997, both had been directly under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, but had been given this separation to be able to function in a “fair, objective and creative manner”.

The government had appointed a committee under Sam Pitroda, a man who is credited for helping Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi bring the telecom revolution to India in the 1980s, to present a report on the function of Prasar Bharti. The report batted for more autonomy for the broadcaster, but went further and suggested that it also be open to use private sources of funding and monetizing its assets. In an event to release the report, Pitroda said that the broadcaster must “look at public interest and not just government interest”. Along with input on technology, human resource and content, the two volume report (which had the current CEO as a member) also delves into government and organisation. The suggestions include transferring complete ownership and management of assets to Prasar Bharti to make the organisation administratively and financially autonomous of the government, and setting up a regulatory body to ensure public accountability of all content on their radio and television networks, while acknowledging that the state does have a distinct requirement to “broadcast messages and accomplishments of public interest which can be met by using existing public and private broadcaster infrastructure”.

The report was submitted to the government in February 2014, and is “under consideration”. It will be up to the next government, to be formed in mid-May, to take action, especially in light of the recent controversy.

Not all are convinced of real change taking place on the ground. In editorial a few months before the report was released, the Pioneer suggested that “the Government supports the idea of an autonomous public broadcaster, in practice it has never been able to let go. Unless this fundamental dichotomy is resolved —either the Government gives up control or relinquishes the autonomy idea — the Government will continue to have a complicated relationship with Prasar Bharati, no matter how many expert committees it sets up. In the meantime, the tax-payer-funded broadcaster will continue to drain the exchequer and be of even less use to the public.” Others, such as media analyst Sevanti Ninan of The Hoot even questioned the genuine interest the government has in reforming the broadcaster by initiating the Pitroda expert committee, asking: “I don’t know why they are undertaking this just before the elections time because if there are radical recommendations there is no time to implement them.” In an article on the subject she addresses the crucial question of attracting talent, writing that “to attract the best personnel the salary/ package should be linked with the market compensation. The tenure of full time members should be for a period of five years and for the Independent Directors for a period of three years. So, no more pegging salaries at a level that only attracts applications from former government personnel. The CEO of Prasar Bharati so far, in its 16 years of existence, has always been a former IAS officer.” There are also serious updates needed in technology upgradation, content and presentation of the news.

For the moment, Doordarshan is thinking about probing into the matter of the edited Narendra Modi interview. But the larger problem cannot be solved on a case-to-case basis. Since 1996, Pitroda’s would be the fourth panel the government has created to look into this issue of Prasar Bharti. It would well be worth the effort for a new government to give the public service broadcaster to the public.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

India fails to throw weight behind NETmundial

India was among the few governments that did not sign the NETmundial outcome statement. But why does it seem that the world’s largest democracy is not putting its weight behind a “bottom-up, open, and participatory” multistakeholder process?
In his address to the NETmundial gathering, Vinay Kwatra, the official Indian representative said, “We recognize the important role that various stakeholders play in the cyber domain, and welcome involvement of all legitimate stakeholders in the deliberative and decision making process. Internet is used for transactions of core economic, civil and defence assets at national level and in the process, countries are placing their core national security interests in this medium. Now with such expansive coverage of States’ activities through the internet, the role of the governments in the Internet governance, of course in close collaboration and consultation with other stakeholders is an imperative.”

The message was clear. The internet has a large role to play in India’s national policy goals, and to that end, a global internet governance ecosystem has to be managed, at the international level, by multilateral mechanisms.

India has over 200 million Internet users — with about 52 million subscriptions — over 900 million mobile telephone subscribers. These numbers are only going to grow. Kwatra, continuing his address, added that, “On our part, however, we would have liked to some of important principles and ideas, highlighted by us and many other countries reflected in the draft outcome document… (we) look forward to constructively engaging with other delegations in collectively contribute to making the Internet open, dynamic and secure, and its governance balanced between rights and responsibilities of all its stakeholders.”

Kwatra was speaking, of course, at NETmundial, dubbed the “world cup of internet governance.” Held in Sao Paolo, Brazil, on April 23-24, 2014, the conference was announced by Brazil President Dilma Rousseff. The entire chain of events can be traced back to the revelations by Edward Snowden that the US’s National Security Agency had been spying on its own citizens and other countries alike, including the personal communication of President Rousseff. In a heated statement at the UN General Assembly in September 2013, she called for the UN to oversee a new global legal system to govern the internet. She said such multilateral mechanisms should guarantee the “freedom of expression, privacy of the individual and respect for human rights” and the “neutrality of the network, guided only by technical and ethical criteria, rendering it inadmissible to restrict it for political, commercial, religious or any other purposes.

Soon, after a brief consultation with Fadi Chehade in October 2013, the head of ICANN — Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers an organization thatcoordinates the Internet’s global domain name system, the the dates of NETmundial was announced. And to add expectation to the event, in March 2014, the the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced its intent to transition key internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community. It clarified that it would not hand over ICANN to any government-led body. Suddenly, NETmundial gained weight as it was to be the next international forum where the future of internet governance was to be debated – and now one of the organizations government a part of the internet was in play. A far cry from what President Rousseff had suggested in the UN General Assembly, instead of talking about an international legal regime to govern cyberspace, the focus of the meeting turned to multistakeholderism as the way forward in the sphere of internet governance.

The draft outcome statement and the subsequent final outcome state released after the two-day conference is a result of 180 input documents and 1300 comments from over 47 countries, and the work of the 1229 delegates from 97 countries who attended NETmundial. India had an official delegation as well as civil society participants who attended the meet. In fact, an Indian academic was chosen to co-chair the organizing committee for civil society for the event. Remote participations hubs were set up in cities around the country, including Gurgaon, Chennai and Bangalore. Within the Indian contingent too, as with any large country, there are divergent views on the governance framework to be taken for the internet, with those who support the governments view for multilateralism at the international level and multistakeholderism at home, and those who oppose the official view and encourage an international multistakeholder regime.

The final statement – though non-binding – has squarely put its weight behind multistakeholderism. It talks about protecting the ‘rights that people have offline, must be protected online… in accordance with international human rights legal obligations.’ It also champions cultural and linguist diversity, which was part of India’s official submission to NETmundial. However, when the document starts to tilt towards governance structure is where it diverges from the official Indian position, with language such as – “internet governance institutions and processes should be inclusive and open to all interested stakeholders. Processes, including decision making, should be bottom-up, enabling the full involvement of all stakeholders, in a way that does not disadvantage any category of stakeholder.”
In the crucial area of cyber jurisdiction, it says, ‘It is necessary to strengthen international cooperation on topics such as jurisdiction and law enforcement assistance to promote cybersecurity and prevent cybercrime. Discussions about those frameworks should be held in a multistakeholder manner.’ On surveillance, the most controversial topic from 2013 which prompted the Netmundial meeting in the first place, the document says, ‘Mass and arbitrary surveillance undermines trust in the Internet and trust in the Internet governance ecosystem. Collection and processing of personal data by state and non-state actors should be conducted in accordance with international human rights law. More dialogue is needed on this topic at the international level using forums like the Human Rights Council and IGF aiming to develop a common understanding on all the related aspects.’

The reaction to Netmundial has been varied, depending on whom you ask. There are those who have hailed it as a first positive step towards a multistakeholder process, and are encouraged to find that participants found more things to agree on than disagree. The US called it a “huge success”. The European Commission felt Netmundial put it on the “right track.” Many big businesses released statements indicating they were pleased at the outcome. The civil society group at Netmundial expressed ‘deep disappointment’ that the outcome statement did not address key concerns like surveillance and net neutrality. Others commentators hailed it a big success for big business as it was able to ‘grab the ball on three important points: intellectual property; net neutrality; and intermediary liability’.

In a sense, India’s refusal to sign the outcome statement, and instead take back to its stakeholders seems to be completely aligned with its stated view of the internet. If, as documentation suggests, the internet is being viewed by India as not merely an open, free, global commons that should remain untouched by any major governmental control, but instead a resource that needs to reflect the values of an ‘equinet’ – a platform for commerce, e-governance, national security mechanism to be achieved through fair playing rules established by a ‘globally acceptable legal regime’ and a ‘new cyber jurisprudence’, then there is a long battle ahead. The official Indian argument does not need to be viewed through the lens that presupposes it wishes to inflict censorship in the manner that an authoritarian government might. The argument must be weighed on the merits of this line of thought – that for Indian netizens, business, and even state surveillance to survive, it must be the government who reflects the national interest in international platforms, after having consulted stakeholders back home.

It certainly seems that the weight and development of a billion people sits heavy on the shoulders of the Indian government. The question is: does it need to lead them to the world wide web, or can they find it themselves?