Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Internet, Transparency and Politics

A talk by Barun Mitra, Chairperson of the Liberty Institute, a Delhi-based think tank, was held at CIS recently, organised by Zainab Bawa in relation to her CIS-RAW project on 'Transparency and Politics'. In this post, the third in a series exploring questions of transparency and politics, Zainab reports on the lecture and discussion.

On April 15, 2009, the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) hosted a talk by Barun Mitra on “Internet, Transparency and Politics”. Barun Mitra is the Chairperson of Liberty Institute, a think tank based in Delhi. Liberty Institute conducts research and advocacy on policy issues ranging from health, environment and trade to democracy and governance.

In 2004, Liberty Institute developed (henceforth to be referred to as EI) to compile information that electoral candidates provided in the affidavits they filed before elections. These affidavits contain details of the candidate’s assets and liabilities, education background, PAN number, income tax records and criminal records, if any. The purpose of compiling this information was to standardise it and make it available for the voters in a comprehensive format. This, in turn, would enable voters to use the information and make informed choices when casting their votes.

EI has undergone several rounds of iterations and is already in the third generation of its development. The aim has been to build a robust database that will allow citizens to extract information as per their specific and nuanced queries and use it during the elections and afterwards, to enforce accountability on the part of the elected representatives. Barun Mitra began his talk by emphasising that EI was more than just a website, contrary to what he found was the initial perception of most audiences. He explained, “I was not interested in merely the information. The larger question driving my initiative was ‘how do we look at politics’?” EI was developed to introduce a different paradigm of understanding politics and participating in it.

The interesting aspect of Barun Mitra’s talk was the question he asked--“What makes information flow?” He decided to move beyond the passé rhetoric of “information is power”. Two specific experiences enabled Barun to understand this question around the flow of information. “I had made a presentation to audiences in Kerala about EI in 2008, trying to solicit their support in disseminating the information on the site to local groups in the state. However, the audience in Kerala saw EI only as a website and raised questions accordingly. Following this, I made a presentation to slum dwellers in Delhi who immediately began to demand information about the candidates who were going to contest from their constituencies in the 2008 New Delhi state assembly elections. The slum dwellers and some of the groups working with them even asked me to provide the information in Hindi and local languages. I was surprised by the fact that two vastly diverse audiences responded in such dramatically different ways to EI. That is when I realized that those who have sustained our democracy, namely the poor, need this kind of information. There is a demand for it among them and therefore, we need to supply it. The second experience was from Gujarat. During the 2007 state assembly elections, we found that a number of local media collectives and the panchayats had used the information on EI. This was because the mainstream media was covering the major politicians and candidates in this election while the local groups needed information on all kinds of candidates contesting from their constituencies. I have now come to believe that demand and supply are two aspects to information and it needs to be provided accordingly where the demand for it is emanating from.”

Barun also reiterated that EI is non-judgmental, in that it leaves it to the audiences to decide how they want to interpret the information. This has been a significant paradigm shift in transparency initiatives that are being developed on the belief that providing more information to people enhances engagement between people and the state. Websites of government departments continue to provide information which they see as important for the citizenry. For instance, see, the website of the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation, which claims to be transparent and provides particular kinds of information, while concealing other aspects of the project development and implementation. On the other hand, some non-government organisations are focusing on organising large chunks of information concerning particular aspects of governance, and presenting it to people in a way that allows them to extract that information which they find relevant.

One of Barun Mitra’s goals for the future is to develop parameters for judging the performance of elected representatives At the launch of EI in Bangalore on April 16, he pointed out that while he can provide information about the attendance records of MPs (Members of Parliament) in the Lok Sabha (House of the People) sessions, it would be inaccurate to judge the MP’s performance on the basis of this criteria. This is because MPs often sign the attendance register but they may not sit through the Parliament session. He therefore feels that more robust criteria have to be developed which will provide a somewhat holistic picture to the people about the performance of their elected representatives.

Finally, Barun Mitra spoke on the issue of authenticity of the information filed in the affidavits. “People often ask, ‘how authentic is this information?’ The election commission does not take it on itself to verify this information. But I would say that authenticity is a secondary issue. First, we have to make information available to the people. People will then, of their own accord, raise questions about the authenticity of the information. For instance, the Criminal Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has filed cases in the Supreme Court challenging the authenticity and sources of the assets declared by current chief minister (CM) of Uttar Pradesh (UP) Mayawati and former CM Mulayam Singh Yadav.” Specifically, Mayawati’s assets in 2003, which amounted to Rs. 1 crore, increased to Rs. 50 crores in 2007. This information came to light through the affidavit which Mayawati had to file before the state assembly elections in UP in 2007. “Filing such a case was possible only because Mayawati and Mulayam Singh were compelled to provide information about their assets to the public.”

Barun Mitra’s talk raises an important question for me: how effective are initiatives like EI in fostering interaction between the state and the citizens? I will address this question in my next blog post, where I will examine the case of the Digital City project in Amsterdam. I will look at the concepts and practices of cyberspace, urban space and citizenship through the Digital City Project and other projects undertaken to foster transparency. I will then try to analyse the initiatives undertaken during the 2009 general elections in India and make some tentative remarks on democracy and participation.

Zainab Bawa
Ph.D. Student and Independent Researcher

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