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Two emails arrived from the White House in recent weeks, like minor messengers of history, inviting questions to US President Barack Obama @potus. The first US presidential Twitter account turned into an online town hall for him to interact with the world. And the Internet opened another window in a technology-linked global village.
Presidential tweets become latest evolving mechanism to connect an elected leader with citizens. Continually evolving is this path of political freedom – from Plato and his Republic, his conflicting debates of democracy, to immeasurable benefits of this Internet Age.
About 3,117 miles east of Plato’s Athens, in New Delhi, the world’s largest democracy suffered another dysfunctional Parliament session the past three weeks. Thanks to a ridiculously obstructive grandstanding from an electorally defeated, desperate, near fully demolished opposition party, no Parliamentary business was transacted in the ongoing monsoon session. The silly pretext was over a non-issue involving a self-exiled sports administrator, certainly not significant enough to hold to ransom legislative work of an entire country. A non-functioning Parliament — in however adolescent as India’s young Republic – becomes the doomed democracy of Plato’s worst nightmares.
Plato (circa 429 –347 B.C) feared for democracy after his life in Athens – now, prophetically, capital of the tragic economy of Greece. Plato wondered: do people – the demos – have the time and inclination to make informed, well-considered decisions for their welfare in a democracy – the rule of the people.
Or would they, as Plato feared, be concerned more about their personal problems, about having a good time, forgetting their necessary responsibility to the community, to the city? A householder unconcerned about a fire in the neighborhood runs risk of the flames burning his house down.
Plato’s ships of democracy
Plato likened democracy to a ship. A ship with irresponsible sailors and incompetent officers sinks when sailing into stormy weather and troubled waters. The 21st century Internet technology transports Plato’s fears and hopes further in ways obviously unimaginable during days of the Greek city states, when Plato studied as a brilliant student of Socrates. Now sail the wondrous information ships connecting continents in real time.
On May 28 and July 1, 2015, President Obama answered on Twitter a few questions on climate change and on his new health care bill. Fifty years later, his successor in the White House might debate in multi-media, Internet-enabled houses of Congress – a virtual, four dimensional world of high definition videos and projected holograms of Congressmen and senators. Quite different will be machinery of democracy in year 2065.
And so O Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, if only you had Phantom of the Internet to ask your lifetime of questions: “What is knowledge?”, “What is beauty?”, “What is justice?” If only you sought from within the deeper truths of life, of the all-governing law of cause and effect: Why the decay, the pain of aging, of death? What is the root cause of suffering, and the way of liberation beyond impermanence of life?
If only you had the Internet to link you to the fully enlightened wisdom, circa 525 BC, to the practical path of ultimate freedom that a crown prince turned ascetic re-discovered in the ancient land of India– the non-sectarian path, not an ‘ism’, leading to truths, and the final liberating truth which, in the purest tradition of science, is experienced by anyone accurately walking on this path of universal truths.
Socrates was executed in his search for truth. ‘The Gadfly of Athens’ they called him. He chose death, choosing to sip willingly from the cup of hemlock, rather than live the poisonous life of a coward turning away from the truth. His student Plato then left Athens, to live near about the sunny blue waters of the Mediterranean, studying mathematics, traveling, returning to Athens in 4th century BC to establish his ‘Academy’, and the utopian seeds of his Republic.
Millennia later, in the democratic republic of India, a techno-alert Prime Minister Narendra Modi, became perhaps the world’s first elected leader to completely bypass the conventional media – the essential Fourth Estate of a democracy – and directly communicate to citizens through his website, radio talks, public meetings, official functions, and @narendramodi Twitter account with his 9,000th message tweeted on August 12.
A ‘Modian’ democracy
In January 2015, Prime Minister Modi announced President Obama’s visit to India, the first American head of state to be chief guest of India’s Republic Day celebrations, not through an official spokesperson or a press release, but through Twitter.
Whether the traveling spirits of Socrates and Pluto smile at such a development in a democracy, students of history might bookmark that social media post as a turning point – a milestone of journalistic evolution when the conventional media was dealt the same fate as most middleman are in our Internet-enabled days of online living: the producer and his market consumer directly transacting business with each other, and the middleman wholesaler rendered more irrelevant, more redundant and much less needed.
In the Narendra ‘Modian’ world of social and alternative media, the conventional press man is an unwanted, troublesome, negative, manipulative, maybe crooked, disposable side show. This ‘Modian’ democracy is also the ‘Mystrian’ and ‘MSDian’ world with a missing media – of Cyrus P Mistry, reclusive chairman of the Tata Group, India’s most renowned industrial house, and Mahendra Singh (‘MS’) Dhoni, India’s most successful cricket captain. These three of the biggest names in India have in common a very successful career – and a polite contempt for the media tribe, avoiding them except in the most compulsory press conferences.
And one of this media tribe, late on an August night, from a computer key board clattering out words near city lights glittering along the Arabian Sea, offers a smiling tribute to this trio. Successful public personages who go on with hard work instead of mucking about with us media folk? Good going.
Only politicians without grass root support sit in television news studios, and chase the media, said Mamta Bannerjee, chief minister of Bengal. The lady was right.
Conventional media coverage of a dysfunctional Parliament the past three weeks brought this image to mind: sometimes seen in the streets of India is a little creature with a long tail, funny face, sad eyes and a fondness for trees. It dances, does tricks while its keeper thumps a small drum and passers-by look on.
This image — no disrespect intended — reminded me of an ongoing media circus and this not so young man in his 40s, a serial failure as a politician, despite inheriting the leadership of his 100-year old party. This poor fellow, it seems, does not seem to have a true friend left in his world, a well-wisher to gift him a compassionate tap on the shoulder and say quietly, “Rahul, shouldn’t you stop making a gibbering fool of yourself?”
He had the incredibly rare opportunity, when his Congress (I) party was in power for ten years from 2004 to 2014, to serve the people of India through any cabinet ministry of his asking. But he turned his back, even while making hypocritical noises about working for the poor and downtrodden. After being badly battered in the 2014 parliamentary elections, he vanished in a sabbatical with which he seems to have failed again, wasted time. For he has returned, only to make this poisonous choice of dancing to drums of rubbish headline writers clueless to ground realities. And Rahul Gandhi’s family and ‘friends’ are letting him self-destruct …
I cannot imagine Rahul Gandhi’s father Rajiv Gandhi, his grand mother Indira Gandhi, and his great grand father Jawaharlal Nehru, all former prime ministers of India across five decades, rowdily holding Parliament to ransom for three consecutive weeks, and preventing crucial legislative bills being discussed and passed.
Not surprisingly, this epic flop of a young leader has no use for the Internet. Having no ideas to share except his confusion, Rahul Gandhi has become a parody, a tragic-comedy, a disgusting disruptive force of parliamentary democracy. Having destroyed his Congress (I) party from having 206 Lok Sabha parliamentary seats in 2009, to 44 in the General Elections of 2014, he is doing his utmost to demolish it to nothingness in 2019.
Voters are not fools, unlike Rahul Gandhi and his drum-beating media cheer leaders.
Liberating Republic of the Internet
Consider a leading corporate office where its general managers go on a rampage of rowdy behavior for weeks, yelling like hostage-taking bandits: “no work in the office until our demands our met.” And like all hostage takers, they tell persons from whom they demand ransom: “all this is your fault for not giving in to our demands.”
Yes, the ruling party did things similar as opposition. But tit for tat makes as much sense as biting back a dog that bites, more so when the real victims are 1.2 billion people.
Thereby this monsoon session of Parliament, India suffered legalized robbery of the tax payer who funds salaries of these non-working parliamentarians, their comfortable homes and lives flush with many perks. “Ten companies in India that take great care of their employees” was headline in an Indiatimes.com article on August 10, and it listed Flipkart, Accenture, Google, Tata Teleservices … “Someone forgot the Indian Parliament,” wisecracked a reader.
Necessity again will become mother of invention – an evolutionary meeting ground of Socrates, Plato, Internet, wisdom, growth of the democratic republic. Children of 2015 will in their young adulthood have the choice of secured voting online, and a virtual version of parliament. It’s only a question of time in a world comfortably getting used to trusting its money in online transactions.
A secure, increasingly online working of a democratic republic will reduce dependence on current and apparently wasted conventional Parliamentary assemblies. This Internet alternative, carefully organized, would be more the enhancing companion than a substitute. It is insurance against sabotage of parliamentary work.
Adding this Internet dimension of democracy reduces electoral risks — like booth hijacking, outlandish costs of campaigning, and this outrageous hijacking of Parliament by a deluded few to detriment of many. There will be too a far greater voter turnout with convenience of voting online. More well-informed citizens, including from villages, participate in a more inclusive parliamentary democracy.
It is not the “system” that fails. It is failure of individuals not making use of the system.
The Internet, inevitably, owns destiny to deliver a wiser dimension of a democracy, maybe more in the neighborhood of Plato’s republic. A virtual parliament not with room for only 552 elected representatives, but an online version to involve 5,000, or 50,000 Members of Parliament — experts, citizens of integrity from diverse fields. They can more efficiently, honestly serve their country, a true democratic republic where political parties are not private properties of a single family.
Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.