- WHEN a politician in India meets a businessperson in the open, the odds are that nothing illegal will take place. Deals are done behind thick curtains, and preferably in London or Dubai rather than Mumbai and Delhi. That Narendra Damodardas Modi, the Prime Minister of India, meets billionaire businesspersons is no secret, as many of such meetings get reported in the newspapers, complete with photographs. What he promises is that he will not allow such personal interaction to cloud his judgment, a vow that was kept in the case of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, whose personal fortune is valued at $ 30 billion.
In the US, when meetings take place between billionaire businessmen and Senators or other VVIP politicians, such trysts are usually accompanied by donations to the politician in question. The US is regarded as less corrupt than India, a position it has secured by legalising what in India is considered by the Indian Penal Code as criminal. The legal limits for campaign financing in India are so ridiculously low that they are often crossed in the first few hours of an election campaign. An abundance of hypocrisy infects both the chattering classes as well as politicians in India, so they balk from removing limits to election expenditure, thereby making more transparent election funding in the country. The result is that almost all legislators break the law on entering office, by swearing on oath that the expenses they incur during a campaign are much lower than the actuals. Both the US as well as India are democracies, sharing the common factor that the richer a candidate is, the greater the chance of success in the political arena. Mark Zuckerberg forgot that the chemistry of politics in India is different from that of the US, so he would have calculated that the jamboree he organized for Modi at his international headquarters, combined with strategic partnerships with businessmen of the immense reach of the Mittals and the Ambanis, would ensure that he got his way with “Free Basics”.
This is a scheme in which a wall is created within the Internet, and only those sites which are within this wall enjoy a privileged position. Others are kept out, so that finally Facebook will become almost a supra government in India, collecting data on hundreds of millions of citizens that would give insights into how to lead them into actions such as the storming of Tahrir Square in 2011. It is hardly a secret that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked hard to leverage the technological dominance of the US into a means of control of the political process in countries with low per capita incomes. If Zuckerberg had succeeded in persuading the Government of India to go ahead with its Free Basics program, within a decade, it would have become the most powerful agency in India, reaching into hundreds of millions of homes and transferring data on the most intimate and personal habits of citizens of the Republic of India.
Of course, such a danger did not stop at least two Cabinet ministers in the Modi government into becoming - outside the public view - apologists for Zuckerberg. Not so Prime Minister Modi, who ensured that his government refused permission to Facebook to go ahead with the plan to create a two-speed internet, the faster and free version to be those platforms Facebook admitted into its fold, while the rest would limp along and in several instances, get burdened with high prices for its services, thereby driving ever more customers towards Facebook. It is an inexcusable fact that India does not have its own platforms for services such as those provided by Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. In contrast, China has developed substitutes for all three, although it has made the mistake of banning the US versions rather than allowing them to compete with homegrown substitutes. India is run not by elected politicians but by a cadre of officials called the Indian Administrative Service (IAS),the successor of the British-era Imperial Civil Service (ICS).
From the day of their induction into the portals of government, IAS officers are taught to regard their political “masters” with the same supercilious scorn shown by Humphrey Appleby towards his minister Jim Hacker. They are also made expert in fending off any threat to their complete domination of the key levers of government, and are coached in how to ensure that every major function of governance be run by an IAS officer. Hopefully the day will come when Prime Minister Modi ensures a level playing field not only between the IAS and other central government services, but between career bureaucrats and members of civil society drafted to undertake key tasks.
The IAS has created a web of governance far more irksome than what was the case under the British. What they seek is that every activity by the citizen or another non-governmental entity be banned unless given permission by the IAS. The more roadblocks that are created, the more the points at which bribes can be collected. There has been talk about Prime Minister Modi ensuring that the up and down movement of files that creates hideous delays in the taking of decisions be shortened, ad hopefully such an innovation will take effect in the third year of his term, overcoming opposition from bureaucrats.
The decision on Facebook leaves room for optimism about the third year of Modi’s 5-year term being different from the first two, for key civil servants wanted Facebook to be allowed to segment the internet through its cleverly thought out plan, but failed because Modi refused to allow the effective formation of a monopoly by an organisation with a record of creating chaos in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bangladesh and Ukraine with the help of the NGOs nurtured by Hillary Clinton in order for the US to gain levers into civil society. Mark Zuckerberg scoring a duck means that the internet remains free for thousands of young innovators to create another Yahoo! Microsoft or Google, not to mention Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.
That is, if a culture of freedom gets established in India over the next few years, rather than a continuance of the colonial model of governance in which the state has all the power and the people are at its mercy. Banning Free Basics is not enough. For India to leap forward, there has to be administrative and legal reform, as well as a culture of free speech, goals that seem far distant at the present
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.