Review: Rajdeep Sardesai’s Book On The Elections

An election that changed India – a cliche trotted out after every general election is doing the rounds again. It is perhaps more accurate to say that a profound change has been kickstarted by these election results. For the first time in Indian history a right wing government with an absolute majority has five, perhaps ten, years to drive their agenda. India has married the right. For better and for worse, in sickness and in health…

Rajdeep tells the fascinating story of the rise of the people who hold the fate of this country in their hands. He is honest and sincere. His opinions are balanced with a healthy dose of soul searching evident in what we read. It is an important story – no matter what your politics.

I should explicitly state my politics here: I am a middle of the road, wishy washy liberal on social issues and a centrist on economic issues (I support ease of business but don’t think we should abolish all elements of the welfare state and I support universal healthcare). Generally, I find it easy to agree with Rajdeep’s worldview.

I was surprised to find that this book makes me uncomfortable in parts – in his telling of the story of Modi and Rahul Gandhi (clearly not versus) one emerges as scarily able and the other as scarily incapable. He is fair to both, and hard on both. There is sympathy for both and a clear articulation of the expectations both have to live up to. Most importantly the book challenges and clarifies long held perspectives on Modi, his motivations and his ambitions.

In his analysis of both, he is harder on Gandhi – who he sees as a 9-to-5 politician who is disconnected and perhaps more worryingly disinterested. Modi needs a strong opposition to make sure he keeps working hard, and doing what’s right. It is the lack of an opposition today, and Rajdeep’s indictment of Rahul Gandhi as a weak, ineffectual leader that should serve as a wake up call for the Congress.

In many ways this book is also about Rajdeep and his journey. From the newsman at the Times of India to the first of the second generation of news entrepreneurs, to being amongst the first of those who exited the news channel he created. Unlike Raghav Bahl he never became a businessman. He was, and is, a newsman. Driven by a need to hold the powerful to a higher standard of probity and performance. And this increasingly in the face of charges of bias from both the left and the right. And that perhaps is his greatest challenge in the years ahead. Rajdeep likes being liked, and the next few years will require him to do his job in an increasingly hostile environment- ala New York 2014.

We need him and his ilk. The opposition is asleep, and when awake flailing about with no ideas and a tired vision of two Indias. At the India Economic Summit last week, the BJP ministers and big business were high fiving each other. The only notes of discord were struck by the WEF’s own global shapers and young global leaders who kept bringing up the notion of purpose driven organisations and sustainable development. And then there was Aruna Roy – forever tainted by her role in Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council – who took on the dogma of the right with her characteristic flair. There was no sign of an alternate political discourse from anyone in the Congress.

Rajdeep is a democrat – who believes in elections, who respects (not reveres) elected leaders, and who is willing to ask the hard questions.

More importantly, this book shows he is willing to explore his own biases and prejudices.

And he’s never boring.

Disclaimer: I worked at CNN IBN between 2005 and 2007. I haven’t met him since.

Why I Am Angry, Why I Am Protesting

I am angry because a woman got raped in a bus in the national capital.

I am angry because I am not a member of the privileged classes.

I am angry because I don’t matter.

I have no security cover.
I have no access to mining or transportation contracts from the government.
I don’t make enough money to buy a farm-house.

And you know what, I can live with all of the above.

I can’t live with police who think they are above the law.
I can’t live with a class of badly-behaved goons who think they are above the law because of political patronage.
I can’t live in a city where a large group of people think they can get away with murder or rape because they are related to politicians, bureaucrats or industrialists.

I’m fed up with a political class who don’t care about me because I’m not an important voter.

I’m fed up with politicians who hide in large bungalows, hob-nob with industrialists and insist on policemen following them around with guns to protect them from the people who elected them.

I’m fed up with news media and columnists who ask me for a coherent alternative, for a list of demands, for constructive dialogue. They expect me to trust politicians, to trust the police to do what’s right, to trust them.

I can’t think of a single instance where politicians have lived up to my trust, or the police have done what’s right and treated me with dignity. And why would I trust the media — their business model doesn’t allow them to take on powerful corporate or political interests easily.

What recourse do I have?

Elections don’t work because across vast swathes of the country votes are bought. Fat, corrupt politicians return to power because they use jeeps, goons and money to take voters to polling booths. I know, I’ve seen it happen.

I am angry because I know I don’t matter in this country — that it’s run by the privileged few for the privileged few.

And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it.

I don’t matter.

I don’t matter because I’m not a vote bank — I live in a city. I don’t matter because I’m not rich. I can’t even pretend that I matter because I’m not a journalist any more — just another corporate drone.

I don’t matter because NOBODY represents me.

The cops aren’t there for my security, they are there to protect the powerful. The laws work when those in power have something to gain. When they lose, the law loses steam.

But, I want simple things:

To be allowed to live my life without restriction if I am not breaking the law.
To feel secure in the city I live in.
To see that my vote counts, that the taxes I pay count.
To know that the government I elect is there to serve me, and not themselves.

Is that too much to ask for?

#DelhiGangRape — A List of Demands

The following demands were first tweeted by @saikatd — I have edited them for grammar and clarity and reworked the order in which the demands have been listed.

  1. The Delhi police must report to the state govt & not a bunch of unaccountable officials like Lieutenant Governor
  2. A Delhi Police Act is passed immediately, without delay, on lines of the SC judgment.
  3. Increase funding of training for police immediately.
  4. Ensure that the cops who didn’t register a case, or delay registration, are charged with abetment of the crime
  5. Ensure that the suspension of cops is not just a paid holiday without any long term consequences
  6. Commission a white paper on what happens to rape cases from prevention to investigation to conviction
  7. Professionalise & empower the National Commission for Women & retire the current politicians manning it

Why We Need To Protest

Kavita Krishnan’s fiery speech that encapsulates the idiocy of the government’s response to the #DelhiGangRape

As usual, the police are suggesting that the safety of people in Delhi is our responsibility. Women need to dress in particular way, only be out at certain times, rush home once it gets dark etc. And of course, we need to check what kind of auto/bus we are getting into to get home.

It’s like we live in a jungle where there are wild animals roaming around. And the police are forest wardens, keeping those wild animals away. But can only do so if we co-operate with them and behave in a manner that they believe is correct. And safe.

Shame on the government. Shame on the police.

What comes after Facebook

“What comes after Facebook?”

This is a question that’s being asked very frequently nowadays — and by people who, a few years ago, were struggling with email.

“Hah,” you say, “he’s just being melodramatic!”

I honestly am not. I know people who still ask for their emails to be presented to them as printouts, who insist on writing in longhand (as in pen and paper) and then asking someone to “type the damn thing in.”

But the fact that THEY are asking the question means that it’s time for an answer.

For a very large number of us today (nearly 700 million), Facebook has become an integral part of our lives. Facebook has had a profound impact on society. Many of us are in touch with old friends. We keep track of each others lives and don’t feel like complete strangers when we meet. We share aspects of our lives as well, and enjoy it when people appreciate our photographs. On a larger scale, Facebook has been given credit for political revolutions, for social and cultural movements. Facebook captures the zeitgeist of the first decade of the 21st century.

I will always refer to the last ten years as the Facebook years.

But we’re already asking what’s next … After all, before Facebook became large, MySpace was huge. So was Friendfeed at one point of time. And does anybody remember Ryze?

I have wondered why we’re asking this question. After all, Google’s bigger than Facebook and has had an equally profound impact on us. But, people at dinner parties aren’t asking what comes after Google. I don’t get asked about the next big search engine at EVERY conference I speak at.

After some thought I’m willing to argue that Google and Facebook are very different in terms of the impact they’re having.

Let’s quickly get Google out of the way so we can focus on Facebook.

Google has democratized information.

In earlier times, vast amounts of money have been made by people who knew something before the rest of the world:

“…and the family developed a network of agents, shippers and couriers to transport gold across war-torn Europe. The family network was also to provide Nathan Rothschild time and again with political and financial information ahead of his peers, giving him an advantage in the markets and rendering the house of Rothschild still more invaluable to the British government. In one instance, the family network enabled Nathan to receive in London the news of Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo a full day ahead of the government’s official messengers.”

The Rothschild Family on Wikipedia

Today, in an era where the phrase, “information is power” has become a cliche, Google has done more than any other service to give people access to information. Think about it, text searches, image searches, maps, news …

Facebook’s impact is altogether different. Eben Moglen puts it best: we have lost our anonymity online. Every service preceding Facebook (myspace et all) have been leading up to this one point: each of us now has a permanent, online, identity.

In a presentation I’ve been making that has been put together by my colleague Gaurav Mishra, one of the slides talks about the people era we find ourselves in today. When we go online, we no longer interact with information, we interact with other people. So, we aren’t going online to visit websites today, we go online to visit people. That’s a BIG difference. But that isn’t Facebook’s big impact.

I believe that the notion of privacy is one of the cornerstones of any social system. All the laws that we write, all the systems of behavior that we see all boil down to a society’s understanding of what’s private and what’s not. If you think about it, privacy is not just two states, it is a continuum — from that which we think of as completely private, our deepest, darkest thoughts that we wouldn’t dream of sharing with anyone, to that which is entirely public, our gender is, for the most part, instantly identifiable.

In the last ten years, our notions of privacy have changed. For an entire generation, photographs are no longer private. They are to be shared widely, and be easily accessible to others at a time convenient to the viewer, not the person in the photograph.

I could go on with other aspects of our lives, but the central thought is this: all the conflict we see around the internet boils down to an argument about privacy.

Facebook’s BIG impact is that it is, more often than not, defining what’s private and what isn’t.

And that right there is why people ask what’s next.

As a species, human beings have never been comfortable with centralized authorities controlling privacy. We are also fundamentally opposed to “others” gaining access to information about ourselves that we think of as private. As far as I know, all social systems that have had centralized repositories of information, and have allowed “others” access to information about private citizens have failed, or have been replaced.

So, let’s take three things as self evident:

  1. The ability to interact with people, and organize people online is something we want.
  2. We want to regain control over defining what’s private and what isn’t.
  3. The internet has a distributed architecture, and all centralized models have been replaced by decentralized models (think BitTorrent, Skype …)

So, what follows Facebook is not another website, but a distributed social network.

In my last post, I touched upon the Freedom Box Foundation. They’re talking about the same thing and I think they’re on the right track.

Think of it this way: each one of will own, and carry around, a mini Facebook. This will be a piece of software, with some level of encryption. It will live on our connected devices, and automatically sync across devices we approve of.

We will interact with other people’s mini Facebooks in an ad-hoc fashion, choosing to show what we want to. We will co-own the data that we create with other people, and control access to it as well. So, if somebody wants access to my information, they’ll have to go out and get a sub-peona, not just run an SQL query on a database.

Google will add a people search engine for this distributed network, allowing us to find people in the same way that we find information today, with us controlling whether we give the Google bot access to our information or not.

The software will also protect us at a network level, encrypting the data heading out from our devices and preventing our internet service providers from reading our data and our email. All of this on the fly, without us being aware that it’s happening.

This will happen over the next ten years, but the interim will be a golden period for brands and corporations who realize the value of the data that we have given them access to unwittingly. As long as Facebook, Twitter and other centralized social networks are around, brands and corporations have the opportunity to reach out to, engage, and gather large amounts of user data. This data may well form the basis of brand and corporate activity for the next 30 years.

For the poor souls whose data will form the basis of this activity, they should take some solace from the fact that this has happened before, albeit on a smaller scale. The marketeer’s major understanding of customers and markets is based upon data gathered in the early days of television and newspapers, when audiences weren’t as fragmented, and people were far more willing to share personal information. This happened during the industrial age, and was marked by the rise of the middle class. After all, the mail-order catalogue wasn’t always seen as spam! Which is why a lot of the marketing talk we hear today that people think of as wise and based on precedence has an industrial age flavor to it. Most marketeers continue to struggle to understand the denizens of the information age.

I’d go as far as to say that the large group called the middle class has fragmented into smaller groups for which we have no names. That this fragmentation will only increase. And that the data available on Facebook gives us the opportunity to map this fragmentation.

At least in the short term.

You see, encryption and control over our own data will give us back our anonymity. Not only at the username level, but at the network transport level. This will be fought tooth and nail by both corporations and government, but it is inevitable.

As long as society agrees that our persons are inviolable and each one of us has control over our own persons, government and corporations will be unable to battle this legally.

Perhaps, it is my training as a journalist that makes me cynical about the motives of large organizations, and skeptical about the present. I have to say I am hopeful about the future. A handful of people have consistently created technology that has made the world better in fundamental ways by transferring power over to individuals. This blog is an example.

The Freedom Box — the future of social media, the Internet and personal freedom

Eben Moglen, the famous free software attorney (wikipedia entry), talks about the world we live in today where we are tracked, measured and monitored in real time, in the video below. A world, where we are no longer anonymous.

He talks about many of the things that have bothered me for a while now. Let me give you a simple example: I wanted to attend the Triggr event in Noida, India today (Saturday, June 18, 2011). When I went to register for the event, I was asked to sign in via Twitter.

These are the things Triggr wanted to do:

The permissions that Triggr wanted from my Twitter account

Reading Tweets from my Timeline is fine, seeing who I follow is okay as well, since that is public information. But follow new people, update my profile, posts tweets, and the show-stopper: access direct messages till June 30th!

I didn’t register, and I didn’t attend.

Facebook has data about 700 million individuals. So, Facebook knows who we are, where we live, who are friends our, what we like, what we want, what we think…

Watch this video:

Eben Moglen is trying to give the internet, and our lives, back to us.

Track the Freedom Box Foundation here: whose goal “is to write free software that enables widely distributed social networking that runs on tiny automated individual home computers.”