Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bloggers in arms

How the internet makes couch potatoes look beyond MTV and soundbites, and translate talk into action

The monks in Burma have no idea. No idea that people all over the world — from Seoul to Vienna — are holding rallies to support their cause. Connecting through Facebook, they are now getting ready to approach Chinese embassies the world over because they believe that China can have the most direct influence over solving Burma’s internal chaos.

This is how it works: once the news of monks rising up against a dictatorial regime was out, people were appalled. But when the news that the Burmese government had censored the internet and media came out, people really started paying attention. To do something. Bloggers in arms. Those who live and breathe the internet.

But why? It’s fair to wonder why someone sitting in Greece (probably basking in the sun) even cares what happens halfway around the world. It all starts with the freedom of expression.

I’ll illustrate: I’d read a few accounts of China and others blocking sites on the internet, but it didn’t quite strike me the way it should have. But the day a friend of mine called me from Pakistan to say, “I haven’t read your blog in ages. Pakistan has blocked it” — it took on a whole new meaning. Of course, it wasn’t me alone; blogspot in its entirety was blocked. But the next time I came across a forum discussing free speech, I spent some more time there.

So what, one may ask, so what if you spend time online? How does it even translate into doing something in the real world? It does, to my mind. The online world is a hook. For many of us, post-materialist, comfortable in our homes, on our laptops, there could almost be no reason to look beyond MTV and soundbites. But people do.

Case and point, the Egyptian blogger who was jailed for criticising the government got coverage in numerous publications the world over, something that would not have been possible even ten years ago. Something more recent? Al Gore and his Nobel Prize. Don’t forget that to put climate change on the global agenda, Gore utilised the internet to its maximum capacity to generate a buzz.

The most interesting aspect of this online activism and outrage is that it is issue-based and not particularly country-based. But can the online community ever put enough pressure to change the outcome of any political fracas? It is an interesting question.

Open-source politics, as this is called, is a huge factor in assessing this possibility — it helps involve more people in political causes than ever. Open-source refers to the fact that anyone can join in and have a say. There is no formal membership and no real top down structure.
And once you’re online, you are a global citizen. You can read The New York Times, Dawn and Le Monde, all at the same time. And because of a borderless existence, at every aggressive foreign policy measure, every repressive action, every time blogspot is banned, the blogosphere goes into a tizzy. The media picks it up and carries the stories. Petitions do the rounds. Increasingly, people have decided to hold rallies in their cities, once they have connected with like-minded people online. The internet, we must remember, is a tool, not the end. Print is translated into action.

There is no doubt that blogging is a huge value addition to politics in general. Media organisations, unfortunately, tend to take themselves so seriously that they forget people are made up of passionate, impulsive instincts. And so, while editorial positions may reflect a certain ideal or ideology, it’s the voice of the people that gives a cue as to where public opinion is heading. It’s the same reason we invented the opinion poll. But in this case, no one is asking but people are telling you anyway. And depending on their number, they can be a formidable force.

And this consociational system reflects the potential the medium has for reflecting the views of the world community. That’s also because the internet brings the issue to you, you don’t have to go find it. Like the Global Climate Summit, which bloggers have arranged online. It’s not just ranting and raving. Those interested will go on fact-finding projects in their own countries. Then a conference will be arranged where a report will be put together. That will be submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change in November.

But another excellent question is, so what? Did it make a difference to General Musharraf that bloggers around the world thought that sacking the chief justice was dictatorial? Maybe not.
But what if you wake up one morning, switch on the TV, and find that people in 67 cities in 38 countries held a rally at the same time to denounce your actions. Suddenly, the dynamic could change. The world is watching you.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

"They call me MR PIG..."

The thing about Pakistan is that it manages to make us look absolutely fabulous in comparison. Power sharing agreements? While Benazir tries to get cases against her withdrawn under the guise of trying to bring democracy in Pakistan, we are a little less refined, but somehow, more honest. Even in our dishonesty. Take for example, Karnataka. The BJP and the JD(S) had a power sharing agreement whereby they would share the chief ministership half-half. So the JD(S) has completed its term, and now it is time for a BJP man to be in that seat. But Deve Gowda and his CM son say no, we won’t. The BJP calls it’s a betrayal (which of course it is) and now everyone is going to take stock of their seats in the state (especially the Congress) and decide if going in for elections is the right idea or carrying on this government, in whatever form. But I digress.

See, the thing is that even the champions of democracy in Pakistan go about it in such a dubious, shady manner that it’s really tough to believe that any of them are actually fighting for a larger cause. Except the lawyers, that is, but I’ll stick to the main political players.

Benazir, Musharraf and Nawaz exhibit the kind of arrogance that is hard to swallow. Not only do they consider this strange ménage e trios the only viable leadership in Pakistan, but I love how they are absolutely convinced that the people look to them as the second coming~! (Maybe not Musharraf so much, but he still does have support on the ground). In contrast, no matter how big the leader in India, and that includes Sonia Gandhi, be it Vajpayee, Advani, Lalu, anyone… they all know that in the end everyone is replaceable. Hell, that they’ve been thrown in and out of office so many times is probably their saving grace. That’s why the current crusade of the Congress to rename every road, airport, building of the country after Rajiv Gandhi is starting to bug me. While I respect his contribution to the country and that he died serving the country, I don’t think he is the single greatest leader to ever be born in India. The Congress needs some perspective or they are going to lose my vote. Economic reforms notwithstanding. [See how emotional the average voter is? But at least I have a say]

Anyway it’s Pakistan I was talking about. When Nawaz made this big thing about returning to Pakistan and was detained at the airport and shipped right out, there were rumours in the Indian Urdu press that he knew what his fate was. He did it to stay in the news because Benazir clearly had the upper hand. Well, then his political gamble was not coming to Pakistan but prior knowledge that he would be shipped off, no contest, but that he went through the drama anyway. Of course, I have no idea if this is true, I asked my boss who said it probably wasn’t cause it’s just too big a gamble to take, but going through the motions of democracy doesn’t actually make you democratic right. And by that I mean, I don’t know if Nawaz or Benazir stand for anyone except themselves.

Now take Benazir’s talks with Mushrraf. The point is that they knew Musharraf is not giving up his post as president. I’ll admit, there was a week in the middle where I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, especially with the whole Iftikar Chaudhary stuff going on, but that Benazir seemed almost ready to accept him as president in uniform is just disgusting. Especially when you consider that this decision would have come in the context of the General forgiving corruption cases against her.

Ok I might be rambling a little now. It’s just that when I contrast all this political posturing from Pakistan’s two alternatives to Musharraf, mostly from their comfortable homes in London’s Park Lane, I can’t understand how that poor country has ended up with this set of losers as their leaders. At least our losers are more open to what they want and don’t want. Even the Congress sycophancy is mighty transparent.

So, who is going to be the next Pakistani PM? Now that Nawaz is definitely stuck in Saudi (right?) he is out of the game, is it Benazir? But Mushrraf would be mad to let her in, because all said and done, she is definitely a shrewd woman who persist in finding a way of overthrowing him. But the question is; what then? Will she call for free and fair elections, putting even herself at the mercy of the electorate at large? The fact that our government might well be making that decision is extraordinary. We should count ourselves lucky.

Look around. I think we have the best house in the neighbourhood.