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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Politics and Development - Is There a Link?

“The price of not participating in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors” ~ Plato


A government by inferiors, as Plato calls it, is a recipe for the stunted growth of a nation and therefore, strong political leadership – that is to say – a constructive role of politics in the development process, is necessary if a nation state is to realize its full potential.

A cursory glance through the world map beginning from South East Asian nation states with export led economies and management style political leadership, to China and North Korea with communist leadership but drastically different economic fortunes, to India’s democratic leadership and steady growth, onwards to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq – countries ravaged economically due to politics of security and further towards the Middle East’s oil producing nations and largely monarchical systems, and so on and so forth, tells us about the role different styles of political leadership have recently played in shaping the developmental trajectory of the region.

The increased competition between India and China has also given rise to the debate about the role and utility of different political systems regarding economic growth and development. Yet, one must ask, is development only economic? A systematic analysis of the word ‘development’ cannot leave out its historical and social components, which together give a coherent picture of the state of a region and its people.

Historical Role

In India, ancient descriptions of various kingdoms are replete with examples of kings patronizing artists, poets, scientists, men of letters and crafts. Whether it is Kalidasa’s Abhignanshakuntalam, Todarmal’s financial capabilities under Akbar, Abhinavagupta’s Commentary on the Gita, Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra or Aryabhat’s numerous scientific discoveries, all of them were made possible due to the encouragement – moral and financial – by the prevailing political leadership of the time. India’s famous handicrafts trade, including the world renowned Daccai Muslin ‘Malmal Shahi’, flourished because it had as its patron and largest buyers various kings and their vassals of small and large kingdoms.

Add to this the various contributions in the form of numerous palaces, forts and other forms of timeless infrastructure including the famous Taj Mahal by Shah Jahan, the Grand Trunk Road by Sher Shah Suri, the various Stupas, Viharas and Grihas, sundials such as Jantar Mantar, temples like those in Konark and Jagannath Puri and the dome shaped mosques and minarets such as Jama Masjid and Bada Imambara - all these are physical consequences of political initiatives of their time.

Yet, not all historical contributions of politics have been positive. The destruction of the famous libraries and knowledge centers of Nalanda and Takshshila, the pillage and sacking of countless temples and other religious places of worship such as Somnath Temple, and the impoverishment of the country through the wanton loot of its natural resources are some of the examples of negative influences of politics on the development process.



Social Role

While reform usually comes from within the society, there are various examples where political developments have given birth to a social reaction and reform process. One such example is the Communal Award announced by the British Government in early 1930s which sought to separate the Depressed/ Backward Classes from the fold of Hinduism and thus drive another wedge in the unity of Indian people and which led to the Poona Pact and the campaign against untouchability launched by Mahatma Gandhi. This, and the dominant role of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar in drafting the constitution, later led to the enactment of constitutional safeguards for Schedule Castes and Tribes in the form of reservation in government jobs and educational institutions.

In the early days of the Company Raj, seeing the plight of the Indian people under the religious orthodoxy and taking advantage of the rule by foreigners, Raja Rammohun Roy, Dwarkanath Tagore, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar etc. relentlessly campaigned for the abolition of sati, widow remarriage, promotion of English language and reform within Hinduism and ushered in the Bengal Renaissance. None of this was possible under the old rulers for whom the religious orthodoxy comprised a crucial support base.

The Post Independence period has seen various initiatives by the modern political leadership for the abolition of superstitious practices such as child marriage, empowerment of women through reservation in local bodies, eradication of deadly diseases such as polio through a sustained campaign and discouragement to blind faith through promotion of scientific thinking and enquiry.

Economic Role

The most recent memory of the amount of destruction that political leadership can bring to bear down upon the fortunes of a region is that of the experience of colonialism. This experience is not unique to India and is shared by various nation states of the world. The deindustrialization and impoverishment of India for nearly 200 years through colonial policies, as detailed by the early nationalists such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, R C Dutt etc. financed the industrialization and development of Britain.

If one looks at the global level, one would find that major scientific advancements in recent memory were made as a result of war. While World War I heralded the arrival of the Mustard Gas, World War II hastened the entry of the Atomic Bomb. The Spanish Conquistadors were able to conquer a large part of Latin America because of gunpowder, and the same allowed Tipu Sultan to introduce the first rockets in modern warfare.

In the post World War II period, the establishment of the Bretton Woods Institutions such as World Bank and IMF by victorious allied powers, still determines the economic equations between the developed and the developing as well as the least developed countries today. At the national level, the politics of federalism and the distribution of resources between various states signify the role political leadership at the central and state level plays in shaping the developmental graph of the nation.



Conclusion

After more than 4 decades of socialist license-permit raj, Indian political leadership intervened to liberalize the economy in 1991 and effect a much needed course correction required to preserve the credibility of the Indian economy and to take it to new heights. Since then, the aspirations of the people have only grown.

In the 21st century India, responding to the needs of the population for jobs and basic necessities like housing, clothing, transportation etc. the political leadership has begun to move from the politics of identity to the politics of development. Recent voter behavior too indicates that different sections, especially the youth, is more likely to vote for candidates who focus on results rather than rhetoric. In an era of automation, innovation and competition, only a dynamic and focused leadership can usher in the security and prosperity required for the sustenance of a country with as large a population as India’s.     

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Interrogating Fake News and the Post Factual Era

When Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, one of the movies in his iconic Apu Triology was released, it faced a lot of criticism at home for showcasing India’s poverty. Responding to the criticism, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister had said – “What is wrong about showcasing India’s poverty? Everyone knows that we are a poor country. The question is: are we Indians sensitive to our poverty or insensitive to it?”

The question posed by Pandit Nehru is relevant not only domestically, but on a global scenario today, when sensitivity to facts is on a decline in a “post-factual” world. The decision by voters in the United Kingdom to vote in favor of Brexit and those in the United States in favor of Donald Trump, in-spite of overwhelming evidence detailing the ill-advisability of such a move, signals a worrying trend for the future of the information age.

However, this essay must begin by interrogating the root cause in the decline of credibility of facts – the decline of the credibility of traditional news media outlets themselves.

Credibility of Traditional Media Outlets


With rapidly advancing information technology, the nature of mass media itself has undergone a complete change. In India alone, 240 million people own a smart phone, while 500 million own a feature phone. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMI), 370 million people are using the internet in our country, the majority through their smart phones. Globally, the numbers are even higher.

Access to the internet and proliferation of social media platforms has meant that today, each and every one is a content generator. This means that when each and everyone with a smart phone and an opinion begins to publish and air their biases, not necessarily with supporting evidence, views overwhelm the news itself. In such a scenario, traditional media outlets are seen less as a “reliable source” and more as a part of the “establishment”.

As a result, there has been a rise of the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ which has filled the void left behind by the declining credibility of these traditional media outlets.

What is Fake News?

Publishing and circulating misleading and factually incorrect information deliberately for one’s own gain is known as ‘fake news’. While the rise of this phenomenon has come at the cost of the credibility of facts, it has also helped in legitimizing hate speech towards specific communities and reducing their participation in mainstream discourse by demoralizing and marginalizing them.

Fake news is built upon ‘confirmation bias’ – which is the tendency of online information consumers to subscribe to the viewpoint which confirms their previously help beliefs. The phenomenon started with fringe online portals which peddled bizarre conspiracy theories taking advantage of this confirmation bias to drive more ‘clicks’ to their platforms and hence generate more revenue. Soon, it had repercussions far beyond what was initially imagined.

The Unique Selling Point (USP) of social media and ‘app’ based services – real time transmission of information – which made them so popular in the first place, contributed hugely to the rise of fake news as the impact of such false information was also in real time. In a recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 2/3rd of the Americans surveyed admitted that ‘fake news’ added to a ‘lot of confusion’ regarding the recently concluded election process.

Alarm bells have been ringing in Europe where elections are to take place in various countries. Germany has warned Facebook of a 500,000 Euro fine if it fails to control the dissemination of fake news and an Italian regulator has directed the European Union to establish an agency for the same.

Dangers in a ‘Post-Factual’ Era

When the credibility of facts based on evidence is exhausted, people tend to turn to their political leadership in their quest for ‘truth’. This provides for a perfect opportunity for the rise of authoritarian/ dictatorial regimes.

In a post-factual era, censorship and curbs on freedom of expression are a likely scenario as attempt to quell every reasonable criticism of the authorities is made. Additionally, news is replaced by propaganda to keep the support of people for the regime at an all time high. It is probably concerns like these that have pushed the sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty Four” through the roof.

Finally, the most pressing danger which can be caused by an authoritarian regime in a ‘post-factual’ era is the neglect of issues of critical and immediate concern such as climate change. By the time responsible leadership takes cognizance of these issues, it might just be too late.



Conclusion – Restoring the Credibility of Facts

To combat the dangers of authoritarian regimes in a post-factual era as well as the dangers of ‘fake news’, the answer is not censorship – it is more speech. A concerted effort by governments, social media portals, traditional media outlets and most importantly, by concerned citizens themselves, to rebut fake news in real time in order to minimize its spread and impact is necessary.

The dawn of a post-factual era also underscores the importance of independent fact-checkers as well as human editors to combat the political tool of ‘alternative facts’, which can end up causing long lasting damage to the credibility of the system of government as well as the continuity of its policy objectives. Programs like Escape Your Bubble, which expose online consumers of information to news outside their bubble in order to counter their confirmation bias are also the need of the hour.

Last but not the least; global consultations between all relevant stakeholders are required to decide upon the mechanisms to be adopted by social media outlets to filter fake news.

Only through concerted efforts and joint action, can the credibility of facts be restored so that they are not ignored by the general public while exercising their franchise and taking decisions which will impact the future of generations to come.