The paradox of a cashless society

To be successful, the push for cashless society must accommodate the anonymity of cash

There is no doubt that moving towards a cashless society has immense benefits: from making transactions convenient and highly efficient to bringing most of the economy under accountability. From where India stands at 2016, a concerted push towards reducing the use of cash makes a lot of sense.

In an editorial last week, Mint enumerated some important steps to ease the path towards a cashless society: availability of telecom connectivity, investment in technology that improves security and simplicity, and government incentives that favour cashless transactions. In an earlier interview with the same newspaper, Nandan Nilekani argues that since much of the necessary infrastructure — Aadhaar, IndiaStack and Unified Payments Interface — is already in place, the Modi governments currency reform (‘demonetisation’) will act as a shot in the arm for India’s move towards a cashless economy. [Disclosure: Mr Nilekani is a donor to the Takshashila Institution.]

The Mint editorial, however, misses one crucial aspect. Apart from cash being a wireless technology with near-infinite battery life, and one that needs no telecom connectivity, it is its inherent anonymity that makes it a very valuable instrument. Yet, most advocates of a cashless society advocate it precisely because it gets rid of anonymity. Ergo, the extent of cashlessness might well be defined by the extent that people value anonymity and privacy. What this means in practice is that unless the demand for anonymous transactions is satisfied, India might not cross what the editorial correctly describes as “the threshold level after which the network effect will take over.” The question is whether the desire for anonymity prevent a forming a critical mass of Indians that rely on electronic payments. This, more than technical considerations, might dictate the pace at which cash is displaced from its throne.

It is understandable, not least at times of moral panic, that ordinary people will fall in line with the arguments of moral puritans and self-righteous advocates and assert that law-abiding citizens need not fear lack of anonymity. Such views ignore the the reality that families and societies are often held together by harmless lies. For instance, one family member will to put away some money from the rest, without any illegal purpose in mind. Some people like to give anonymously to charity, without any malice or illegality involved. These kinds of innocuous, quotidian acts are a glue that binds society.

Then there are perfectly legal acts that people wish to hide from their families, society or government in order not to attract criticism or punishment. Many people have food habits they’d rather not admit to their family, others might want their alcohol and cigarette purchases to remain hidden. People might give money to NGOs and political parties that are heterodox, dissenting or championing unpopular causes. Such acts characterise and sustain liberal societies. Indeed, even some illegal activities — say prostitution or consumption of certain narcotics — that take place regardless of the letter of the law might have a stabilising influence on our societies. The fact that puritans are disgusted and outraged by this is beside the point. Indeed the story of post-Enlightenment social change around the world is one of legitimising a number of acts previously considered immoral, after weighing them in the court of Reason.

For this reason, some jurisprudence has equated anonymity of cash with free speech. I usually avoid turning policy arguments into a question of rights, as it forestalls further discussion. In this case, though, I think it is justified. It would be hard to sustain free speech if there is an audit trail exposed to the market, society or government. The chilling effect this would have would impinge on the foundations of a liberal society.

Therefore, there are good reasons, both practical and of principle, to retain anonymity in financial transactions. To succeed, initiatives to promote a cashless society must, er, account and accommodate them. Good policy ought to be able to balance many valid considerations and arrive at an optimum approach. Allowing cashless transactions to be anonymous below a certain limit might offer a reasonable compromise. For instance, a stored-value “cash” card, available without requiring proof of identity, limited to payments of Rs 10,000 per month, with an six-month expiry date is one type of solution. This will achieve the transactional benefits of electronic payments, the anonymity of cash and limit the risk of use in large-scale criminality. Of course, even these cards can be abused, but I’d argue that the social benefits outweigh the costs.

If the government takes such a route, it will create enough room for innovation that can, paradoxically hasten the march towards the cashless society. Otherwise, we might take a very long time to cross the threshold that will unleash those network effects.

Tailpiece: It’s not as if a cashless society will lead to greater honesty. Dan Ariely’s experiments suggest otherwise.

“From all the research I have done over the years, the idea that worries me the most is that the more cashless our society becomes, the more our moral compass slips. If being just one step removed from money can increase cheating to such a degree, just imagine what can happen as we become an increasingly cashless society. Could it be that stealing a credit card number is much less difficult from a moral perspective than stealing cash from someone’s wallet? Of course, digital money (such as a debit or credit card) has many advantages, but it might also separate us from the reality of our actions to some degree. If being one step removed from money liberates people from their moral shackles, what will happen as more and more banking is done online? What will happen to our personal and social morality as financial products become more obscure and less recognizably related to money (think, for example, about stock options, derivatives, and credit default swaps)?” [Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves.]

From ex gratia to insurance

Insurance payouts maintain human dignity and create incentives for safety

The derailment of Indore-Patna Express, near Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, is the first major accident after the introduction of an extremely low cost travel insurance scheme. Under the “optional travel insurance” scheme passengers (or their kin) can receive up to Rs 10 lakh in payouts if they pay a premium of less than a rupee.

Despite the extremely low cost of insurance, only 128 of the 695 passengers on the train opted for the insurance. The accident victims, or their kin, will still receive Rs 5.5 lakhs from the Union government, Rs 5 lakh from the Uttar Pradesh government and Rs 2 lakh from the Madhya Pradesh government. These are the ex gratia payments that governments have traditionally paid to victims of accidents and disasters.

What is an ex gratia payment? It is a payment made voluntarily, out of grace, sympathy or kindness. It precludes any legal liability or obligation on the part of the payer. It treats the passenger as a subject or a supplicant, rather than a citizen with rights and dignity.

An insurance payout on the other hand is an obligation on the part of the insurance company to pay the insurer, if the accident were to unfortunately occur. Insurance companies have an incentive to try to lower the risks, for example, by pressing the transport company to invest in safety.

Clearly, it makes sense for a democratic country to move away from the monarchical, patronising ex gratia system to an insurance system that upholds the dignity of the passenger, allows individuals to decide how much they value their own lives and create incentives for railways to improve safety.

Therefore, the introduction of an insurance scheme by Suresh Prabhu’s railway ministry was an important step in the right direction. If the insurance scheme catches on, greater competition in railway insurance could emerge, with passengers being able to choose how much insurance they would like. A basic low-cost insurance scheme, like the one currently operated by the government, could ensure that even the poorest passenger is insured.

Given that only around 20% of the passengers availed the low cost insurance scheme suggests that people have to be educated on the importance of insurance. One proposal—that relies on insights from behavioural economics—involves changing the insurance from an opt-in to an opt-out. This makes sense, given that the insurance premium is a tiny fraction of the ticket price.

The other proposal is politically more difficult: the phasing out of the custom of awarding ex gratia payments. At the margin, people will be more inclined to pay a tiny insurance premium if they know that they cannot expect governmental charity. The phasing out can be gradual and accompanied by a campaign to educate passengers on the importance of insurance.

Three thoughts on Independence Day

On freedom, constitutional balance & the dangers of majoritarianism

For quiet contemplation on Independence Day

— A good time to read and reflect on Tagore’s verse

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

— On freedom of religion

the emergence of contentious issues relating to the place of religion is also an opportunity for another generation to re-examine the balance the Indian Republic has struck on those very issues, and hopefully, allow us to get past them and onto the more important items on the public agenda. [More]

— On protecting liberty from democracy

we are used to thinking in terms of the majority and minorities in ethnic-religious terms. This is bad enough. But a majority is merely a number, and it is possible for majorities and minorities to form over political issues. Even in polities divided along religious lines, have we not seen conservative elements of religious communities come together to proscribe individual liberty? That is the danger. The biggest casualty of direct democracy will be the liberty of the individual. [More]


The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on Independence Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

and on Republic Day 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

A democratic death knell for individual liberty

A referendum is a bad idea

Caught in a political tussle with the Union government that has administrative and “superuser rights”, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government has thrown up the idea of a referendum to decide whether the union territory should become fully a state. Since there is no scope for a referendum within India’s constitutional structure, everything about the proposal—from who are the voters, to who will conduct it to what does any result mean—is an open question.

Regardless, the proposal for a referendum is dangerous, poorly conceived and might destabilise India’s politics more than anyone has imagined. Not for the textual reason that the Constitution does not permit it, but for the deeper, conceptual reason as to why the Constitution does not permit it.

There are two broad arguments for representative democracy: first, the practical transaction costs of taking every issue to all the voters are massive for anything larger than a community of a few thousand people. It would be prohibitively expensive even for a small Indian state to decide every issue by asking voters directly. Technology reduces costs: it is possible that in the coming decades, the availability and adoption of technology will make referenda rather inexpensive to conduct.

So should human civilisation move ahead to direct democracy when transaction costs of referenda are lower than the transaction costs of representative democracy (all that money spent on parliament, legislators and so on)? Not quite. That is because the second argument for representative democracy–even with the quality of legislators that we often detest–is that direct democracy can lead to highly illiberal outcomes. It would be dangerous enough in a homogenous, egalitarian society. It would be extremely risky in a highly diverse society like India’s. Politics is often a contest for relative power among different communities, quite often expressed through imposition or prohibition of their mores. In India we are used to thinking in terms of the majority and minorities in ethnic-religious terms. This is bad enough. But a majority is merely a number, and it is possible for majorities and minorities to form over political issues. Even in polities divided along religious lines, have we not seen conservative elements of religious communities come together to proscribe individual liberty?

That is the danger. The biggest casualty of direct democracy will be the liberty of the individual. The Indian Constitution is a balance between a democracy that expresses the will of the majority, and the fundamental rights of the individual. Weaken this edifice and individual liberty will be the first against the wall.

Referenda are dangerous not merely because people in some states might choose to secede from the Indian Union, but really because rule-by-referenda will be the death knell for the rights of the individual. There is no safeguard for liberty in a referendum.

The AAP government in Delhi would do well not to stoke fires it cannot control. If it does want to assess public preferences–for administrative or political purposes–it can conduct large scale public consultations that ask thousands or hundreds of thousands of people for their opinion. Results of such a consultation will have no constitutional basis, but can go some way in bringing in popular sentiment into public policy.

Related Posts: Dogma, Reason & Democracy; and how to escape the tyranny of the ignorant.

Three thoughts for the Republic

On reason, liberty and the right action

For quiet contemplation on Republic Day:

How to protect Reason from democratically-enforced dogma and escape the tyranny of the ignorant;

– On the liberal nationalist position on free speech (and what liberal nationalism is);

An eight-fold path to transforming India and the self;

The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on Republic Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

and on Independence Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

The liberal nationalist position on free speech

The problem is not so much the liberals, but a mass of the population which gives in to populist sentiments.

The weapon of the weak

Sowmya Rajaram of Bangalore Mirror interviewed me for her feature article on Sunday. Here is the complete exchange:

1. What, according to you, is freedom of expression (FoE)?

The idea of free speech & expression is to say (write, draw, sing, compose musically etc) what one feels without being deterred by government, politicians, social consensus or popular sentiments. The only exception is the “harm principle” where there is incitement to violence.

Of course some free speech can be defamatory, and those defamed can seek legal recourse for the damage caused to them. But there cannot be any prior restraints on free speech.

2. There are a few matters to consider when talking about FoE– one of them being that it isn’t equal for everyone. Often FoE is different when you’re a disadvantaged minority, and an ideal for the privileged majority. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, for instance, the publications’s cartoons were often violent and deliberately provocative (even distasteful) in a country which did have a troubled relationship with its Muslim minority. So how does one negotiate that?

This is a specious argument — on the contrary, free speech is more meaningful for those who are in a minority, for their voices to be heard. It is more meaningful for those who are weaker, powerless, poor or disadvantaged. Only free speech allows the disadvantaged asymmetric power.

3. You have in the past said that censorship is tied up with issues of intolerance and competitive politics. That may be true, but isn’t censorship necessary in a large, diverse and often fractious state like ours? How does one balance the need for individual FoE with a collective responsibility to peace and freedom?

In ordinary circumstances, there is no case for censorship of any kind. Films could perhaps be classified so that children are protected from adult themes and audiences can know before-hand which films they might want to avoid. You only have to see our films to see how distorted censorship outcomes are: you have films with the most misogynistic themes, celebrating barbaric behaviour, all allowed without cuts. But kissing and nudity are censored!

The only point where censorship is justified is in emergencies — where there is a risk that information flows can impact national security, set off large-scale violence, rioting, stampedes etc.

Censorship to protect the sensitivities of adults is ridiculous, patronising and makes a mockery of our democracy where adults are considered sensible enough to vote, marry and produce children, but not sensible enough to watch a movie or read a book!

These questions turn up repeatedly because we have arrived at some kind of a consensus that something that is offensive ought to be banned. The contemporary roots of this arose with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which the Rajiv Gandhi government banned. India was the first country to ban the book! That opened the floodgates for everyone to claim to be offended and get the offending movie or book banned. Since India has hundreds of communities, it is normal for each of them to want to claim the same ‘privilege’ as others.

Showing thin-skinnedness is also a useful political tactic, as it allows a group to demonstrate their political strength.

Individuals identify with one or more communities, and are understandably more vocal in claiming their own ‘privileges’ than in defending others’ rights. So people will engage in whataboutery and yesbuttery. We can’t blame the people, because they are responding to the incentives our public environment has created.

The way out is simply to adhere to the view that nobody’s sensitivities are worthy of protection. I think many of the films, lyrics and songs are in very poor taste, and hence I avoid them. People have the right to change the channel! If people don’t turn up to watch Honey Singh’s shows, I’m sure he’ll change his tunes (or lyrics). People who are offended by Doniger, Rushdie or Socrates don’t have to read them.

4. Many of the ‘hate speech’ laws are a legacy of colonial times when it was deemed necessary to have them to control an essentially “esxcitable”, diverese race. How are these relevant today?

Yes, hate speech laws in the West derive from their colonial excesses, racism, slavery, and of course, the great crimes during the Second World War. We did not have these in India. Our problem is communal, caste and ethnic conflict which is not quite the same thing.

We need not control hate speech. But there is a case to punish incitement to violence based on hatred (or for that matter, any other reason).

5. How much merit is there to the movement for a complete libertarian state where speech is truly free? Is it even possible?

There cannot be a complete libertarian state, as that is an oxymoron. A state involves a social contract where some liberties are traded away for the privilege of enjoying the rest of them. So we give up the right to violence to the state, so that we may enjoy the right to life, property, free speech and so on.

A figure of merit, therefore, is how few of our liberties do we need to give up in order to enjoy the rest. North Koreans give up 90% of their liberties to enjoy the remaining 10%. North Americans give up 10% of their liberties to enjoy the 90%. I think India should aim to move towards the North American standard, rather than the North Korean standard.

6. FoE also becomes problematic when one weighs the consequences of utterances differently. For instance, liberals were up in arms about the ban on Wendy Doniger’s book, in the case of Charlie Hebdo and earlier, when Arundhati Roy was charged with sedition and jailed. But the very same people were also outraged when Honey Singh was to perform in India in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape in 2012, given his offensive, provocative lyrics that were derogatory to women. Could you talk a little bit about the conflict there?

Again this is a specious generalisation. I’m sure there were liberals who defended the rights of both. The problem is not so much the liberals, but a mass of the population which gives in to populist sentiments. So we’ll have people claiming “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” because it is popular, we’ll have people supporting the ban on pornography, because that is the right thing to be seen saying, and we’ll have people asking Honey Singh to be banned.

The masses have no obligation to be logically consistent, or principled. We, the people, are selective in our morality and our principles. That’s our problem.

7. It is a problematic subject with no easy answers — but is FoE a myth? Does it exist? What kind of approach can one take to the concept?

Of course it is real and it exists. The very fact that we are debating the limits of our free speech is a statement to its existence, its importance and its acceptance in our society. Our only problem is that we want it to be self-serving!

On free speech and national security

Blocks, bans and censorship no longer work

This is the unedited draft of my guest column in this week’s India Today.

Let us not underestimate the importance and the challenge of maintaining public safety and national security in a diverse, heterogenous society undergoing rapid change. Over the last three decades, riding furiously on the politics of identity and the economics of entitlement, an arms race of competitive intolerance has rent Indian society. It is frequently accompanied by coercion, intimidation or violence.

Unfortunately, where one citizen’s intolerance collides with another’s right to free speech, the agents of the Indian republic cravenly side with the former. This is the context in which our police, intelligence agencies and security forces are tasked with the job of maintaining domestic peace. As important as their job is—for internal stability is the basis for growth and development—they are under-staffed, under-equipped, under-trained and inappropriately organised for the task. To an extent, therefore, it is understandable that the security establishment prefers to err on the side of caution, and seeks as much statutory leeway as possible in laws concerning free speech and civil liberties.

It is understandable, yes, but no longer acceptable. Even before large numbers of Indians acquired mobile phones and got onto the internet, our unreformed, colonial approach to policing had created a yawning gap of disaffection between police and citizen, establishment and society, the state and the individual. The information age has exacerbated this gap, creating extreme pressures on both sides. If left unchecked, such pressures could explode in many ways, most of which spell trouble for our democratic republic.

The traditional method of maintaining what is popularly known as “law and order” involves rationing information. It presumes that information is a scarce commodity like it used to be half-a-century ago. Censorship could prevent the masses from obtaining information that the authorities didn’t want them to. Books could be banned and their import restricted. Sensitive installations could be protected by preventing accurate maps from being published. Even when government documents weren’t classified, there was little chance that citizens would ever have access to them.

This is no longer tenable because information is no longer scarce. Traditional methods might still fetch tactical, short-term successes, but at the cost of creating strategic, long-term damage. Cutting off SMS services in Srinagar might put the brakes on the spread of a riot but adds another layer of grievance to an already disaffected population. In most cases it simply doesn’t work. Censorship can be circumvented inexpensively, banned books downloaded easily and many official documents accessed through the Right to Information.

That’s not all. By keeping blunt laws that were designed for ease of use by unreformed police forces, we do not create any incentives for smarter policing. Draconian laws are bad for the police. They are obviously bad for society. The disconnect they create between the two is bad for the Indian republic.

The recent arrest of the two young women in Palghar, Maharashtra under draconian provisions of the IT Act and the Indian Penal Code, and the subsequent government action against the policemen involved, demonstrates this. The only winners in that episode were the intolerant.

Instead of persisting with the increasingly counterproductive approach of rationing information, a better way would be for the government to manage its abundance. There is nothing stopping the government from putting timely, accurate information online. From traffic updates to weather, from law and order situations to authoritative updates on details of the operations of our security forces. When the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) published tweets and videos of their recent combat operation in near real-time, they ensured that their narrative prevailed over the usual confusion and misinformation that the fog-of-war creates. There are lessons here for our Home Affairs and Defence ministries.

Similarly, law enforcement authorities can keep their fingers on the zeitgeist and intervene with factual information in real time. Some are already doing this. The state police in Jammu & Kashmir have made good use of Facebook. Last month, the Ministry of Defence and Army Headquarters put out their version of the story even while Arvind Kejriwal was making allegations—concerning non-payment of emoluments to a NSG commando—at a press conference. This method can be used to good effect during times when there are malefactors spreading rumours online. Good information is the best way to counter bad information, obviating the need to block social media, ban websites and suspend telecom services.

Law enforcement authorities must have the powers to ensure public safety and order. However, the Policeman cannot be the arbiter of free speech. It is a mistake to ask police officers to develop the sophisticated sense to appreciate the finer nuances of what is acceptable speech. What we must do as part of a larger project of police reform is equip our law enforcement authorities with information management skills necessary to do their basic job—protecting our liberty—better.

The genesis of a draconian section

Bad laws pave the way for worse ones

You only have to look at Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act 2008 to realise that it is so badly worded that it not only permits draconian abuse by the government but allows individuals to get fellow citizens arrested for merely sending an electronic message that they consider grossly offensive. Don’t take this blogger’s word for it. Read it yourself.

It is obviously ultra vires of the Constitution’s Article 19, which enshrines freedom of speech as a fundamental right. If a statute renders “blasphemy” a crime in the Republic of India—as the IT Rules for Intermediaries, 2011, which draw their authority from the IT Act, have done—then it doesn’t take a legal genius to notice that a lot of things have gone ultra vires of the Constitution. The higher courts ought to strike it down when the matter comes up for hearing in a few public interest litigations that are in the works.

The question is how did this appalling section make it into the statutes in the first place? Here’s where it gets murky. By all accounts, the IT Act was sought to be amended in 2006, when Dayanidhi Maran was the IT minister. The concern at that time was over hacking and circulation of covertly-shot pornographic videos on mobile phones. An expert committee, of which Kiran Karnik, then the chairman of NASSCOMM was a member, recommended changes to the Act. In its Summary Report it said:

“Language of Section 66 related to computer related offences has been revised to be in lines with Section 43 related to penalty for damage to computer resource. These have been graded with the degree of severity of offence when done by any person, dishonestly or fraudulently without the permission of the owner. Sometimes because of lack of knowledge or for curiosity, new learners/Netizens unintentionally or without knowing that it is not correct to do so end up doing certain undesirable act on the Net. For a country like India where we are trying to enhance the positive use of Internet and working towards reducing the digital divide, it need to be ensured that new users do not get scared away because of publicity of computer related offences. Section 43 acts as a reassuring Section to a common Nitizen (sic). IT Act in order to ensure that it promotes the use of e-commerce, e-governance and other online uses has been cautious not to use the word cyber crime in the text.” [Expert Committee’s Summary Report at MCIT, doc]

This, however, does not sound like an explanation for the wording of Section 66A. That’s because it explains the Expert Committee’s draft of Section 66, which is very different from what eventually went into the amendment.

Somewhere between then and the report being tabled in the Lok Sabha for vote, during Andimuthu Raja’s controversial tenure IT minister, the wordings were changed. We do not at whose behest these changes were made. We do not know why. The Union Cabinet and the Ministry of Communications and IT are accountable, of course, but there is no transparency at all on the motives and the actors behind these changes. If there were national security reasons, they should at least have been mentioned as reasons. Without transparency, we will not be wrong in assuming that the draconian measures were intentionally introduced to stifle free speech and target political opponents of the parties in power. CIS India’s Pranesh Prakash has more on where they got the wording from in his detailed deconstruction of the offending section.

There’s worse.

Shouldn’t one of the hundreds of members of parliament noticed this section for its potential abuse, and flagged the issue? Shouldn’t the parties in Opposition, from the BJP to the Communists to the various regional parties, held the Government’s feet to the fire? After all, that’s what the parliament is for. How could this Bill make it past the two houses of Parliament, where there still are many individuals with the knowledge, inclination and position who could have intervened? Well, because it was passed in mindless haste at the fag end of the 2008 Winter Session of Parliament, when eight bills were passed in a mere seven minutes!

This happened because of the anti-defection laws introduced in the 1980s has turned Parliament from a debating chamber to a puppet theatre where the MP’s strings are pulled by the party leaderships. Bills are passed more through political deal-making between the party leaderships than through debate. It was not always like this. It changed because of one bad law. So bad is that law that it is hard to change it, because changing it requires the consent of the very party leaderships that it will disempower. Shanti Bhushan, now associated with India Against Corruption, was one of its drafters. It was enacted by the Rajiv Gandhi government.

This begs the question. How seriously can we take the laws made by a parliament that overlooked such a flagrant assault on our fundamental rights? The legitimacy of every single law, every single section made by this parliament is suspect. That does not mean citizens can disregard them. It means citizens ought to scan every bit of legislation going in and coming out of parliament with extreme diligence. This is where the work of neutral research bodies like PRS Legislative Research becomes extremely useful. It’s out there, for those willing to pay attention and act.

Parliament must redeem itself. If it wants to restore its credibility, parliamentarians should act in ways that corrects their big mistake. They must get rid of Section 66A in its entirety.

Related Link: See what Kiran Karnik says in on NDTV 24X7’s We The People show, where I was also a panelist.

On the government’s decision to block some social media content

On free speech and extraordinary circumstances

Here’s a segment from yesterday’s NDTV’s Nine ‘o Clock News

You can catch the entire programme here. For more details and an analysis of the blocked sites, see Pranesh Prakash’s post at CIS.

Populism, freedom and democracy

Defending free speech is best done by voting

The Indian governments’ second cave-in over Salman Rushdie at Jaipur last week should worry us. The Rajiv Gandhi government’s surrender to Muslim ‘sentiment’ over Satanic Verses triggered the process of competitive intolerance that has created an environment where anyone—citing religious feelings—can have books, movies and art banned, and their creators persecuted. A quarter of a century is usually sufficient to reflect on the follies of the past, realise the consequences of the mistakes made and resolve not to repeat them. The UPA government could have managed Salman Rushdie’s appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival better. Here was an opportunity to not only reverse the tide of competitive intolerance but also secure an unassailable position in the political landscape.

Yet, the Congress regime failed. And failed abjectly. All it could do was to use low cunning to create fear and uncertainty among the participants. Those who believe that the first duty of the government is to protect citizens from violence will conclude that the UPA government in New Delhi and the Congress government in Jaipur have failed. After all, if we are to allow violent people to determine what a citizen can or cannot do, why do we need government in the first place?

“But it’s about UP elections!” comes the reply, as if fundamental rights are subject to the political exigencies of state assembly elections. While it is understandable that political partisans—who see everything through the lens of costs and benefits to the party they support—will offer this as an explanation, excuse and justification rolled into one, there is no reason for the rest of the citizenry to accept this as the ‘logic’.

“But under the Indian Constitution, fundamental rights are not absolute and the government has the right to place reasonable restrictions on them” comes another reply. This is an accurate statement. From the debates in the Constituent Assembly, to the verdicts of the Supreme Court and to the opinion of experts in constitutional law, there is no doubt that the Indian Republic seeks a balance between individual liberty and public order. Ergo, some actions by the government to abridge liberty in the interests of maintaining order are constitutionally legitimate. This is intended to give the government flexibility. It would be ridiculous to argue that the Constitution is so constructed to cause the government to yield to threats of violence. It would be wrong to blame the Constitution for a particular government’s cravenness or failure.

What then should we make of this affair? As Andre Beteille explains in his masterful essay on constitutional morality, the Indian system is prone to swings between constitutionalism and populism, with the former asserting liberty and the latter assailing it. Why, though, should populism be opposed to individual liberty?

Phrased differently, why should the government cave in to the demands of the intolerant and not to demands of the liberal? Actually, this is the same as asking “why is it unsafe for women to walk on our streets, why is it that our courts take too long to decide cases, why is it that we need a scores of licenses to start a business, why is it that it is so difficult for our children to get a seat in a good school, why is it that we don’t have decent drinking water, electricity supply, hospitals and, and, and …?” Given the public awareness and indeed consensus that these issues need to be tackled, why is the government so uninterested in pursuing these goals with any seriousness?

The answer might surprise you. It’s because India’s democracy is functioning as it should and the politicians are sensitive to the demands of their voters. The electorate is getting what it wants. The population isn’t. Public discourse in India is unduly influenced by the middle class, not least because it constitutes the market for our media. Middle India believes that that issues that it is preoccupied with should also concern political parties and the government. And when it observes that this isn’t quite what is happening, it is disappointed and—like a hopeless romantic who hits the bottle—drowns its sorrows in cynicism.

Democracy is a numbers game. Those with larger numbers can use the flexibility in the Indian Constitution to have their way to a larger extent. Now we can wish that we had a less flexible constitution where this wouldn’t be possible. But not all wishes have their Santa Clauses. Or, we could start practising democracy. Explaining the failure of the old Indian Liberal Party (in 1943!) B R Ambedkar drew attention to what he called “the elementary fact”, that “organization is essential for the accomplishment of any purpose and particularly in politics, where the harnessing of so many divergent elements in a working unity is so great.”

Technology has made organisation of large numbers of like-purposed people fairly easy. As Atanu Dey has argued, forming voluntary voter’s associations can make an individual voter more effective. It’s being put into action too—see the United Voters of India online platform.

Ultimately, though, it depends on how much of the population becomes the effective electorate. In other words, it depends on whether you vote or not. If you don’t, why blame political parties or the government for giving voters what they want?