By Swapan Dasgupta
On Sunday evening, i am scheduled to participate in a net debate on an issue that has disturbed me for some time: the marginalization of the Right from the liberal space.
The subject is undeniably abstruse and of interest to either those who perceive themselves on the Right of the political spectrum or those who have nothing better to do on a Sunday evening. Yet, it is not the topic alone that whets my appetite: it’s the novelty of a structured engagement with a bunch of disparate but motivated individuals who have — like the disrupters in the Rajya Sabha — made more noise in cyberspace than their numbers warrant.
It’s not a complaint based on personal experience alone. Conversations with other media professionals, particularly those who have a presence of social networking sites such as Twitter, suggest a growing exasperation with net activists hell bent on swamping the medium with venomous outpourings. It wouldn’t have really mattered if the ‘hweets’ (the name given to hate tweets) had stuck to obsessive political themes — for the past few weeks M F Husain has been the clear favourite and American academic Wendy Doniger a poor second. Unfortunately, it tends to descend into the realms of the personal, particularly if the target is a woman. A woman writer with liberal inclinations and a Muslim name was recently called “slut” for questioning some holy cows of certitude.
It is not that anyone really objects to the Internet Hindus or Internet Islamists having their say, decorously. Tolerating the obsessive is the price of an open society. The US, after all, is dotted with bores who accost the apparent non-believer with a Jesus-loves-you sermon. And, if the white Hare Krishna-types stuck to running vegetarian restaurants rather than prancing through Oxford Street each evening, the authentic Hindus would feel much more relieved. The problem arises when storm-troopers of different faiths vitiate the medium to such an astonishing extent that the normal guy, with no rigid views and no insider information, runs away from political engagement. They are either intimidated or disgusted by the preponderance of weirdos.
When it first arrived on the scene, the www was seen by many as the great liberator and democratic facilitator. It enlarged the reach of the media exponentially and at a nominal cost; it transcended national boundaries; it threatened media monopolies; it bypassed censorship; and it transformed passive readership into interactive engagement. The social networking sites built on this advantage and created alternative communities of the like-minded, ranging from stamp collectors and dog lovers to hypercondriacs. Repressive and totalitarian regimes feared that the net has made it almost impossible to suppress ideas and information.
China is fighting a battle against Google and Iran is hassled by the way Twitter and Facebook are used to bypass the thought police. But these are losing battles of dictatorships. Technology is also becoming a political liberator — a reason why China has also unleashed a parallel campaign to shout down its opponents using the same technology and leveraging its awesome numbers. Likewise, causes that perceive the mainstream media to be needlessly condescending, dismissive or even hostile have alternative channels of reaching out. At one time, every minuscule political group had its own print publications which harried members struggled to sustain. The net has provided them more viable alternatives, and at a fraction of the cost.
The www has triggered a revolution in communications and political discourse. The unevenness of development has meant that many of these opportunities haven’t been fully exploited in India. Those unfamiliar with the English language and those who emotionally identify with a village-centric Bharat (against a globalized India) continue to view the www with wariness, often as an alien intrusion. Among the 55-plus generation in public life too, the internet is at best a clippings library and an alternative dak system. With the possible exception of Narendra Modi and, of late, L K Advani, they have failed to grasp its tremendous outreach potential.
The www as a parallel political stage is still evolving in India. It has to be carefully nurtured and made appealing to those who have traditionally shied from either expressing their views or passively voting once every five years — and that too, if it doesn’t clash with a long weekend. If the same strong-arm tactics and the murky shrillness of the outside world are replicated on the net, it will reinforce the conviction that politics is by definition fractious, ugly — and best left to determined activists.
The danger of a democratic instrument being hijacked by virtual jihadis and bajrangis is real. Maybe the libertarianism of the present will soon have to be replaced by an enlightened code of conduct, and technology will enable the users of poison keyboards to be outed and shamed.