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A Statement of Purpose

A considerable amount has been written about the role social media will play in the 2014 elections, and perhaps the single most cited document has been this report by the Iris Knowledge foundation in conjunction with the Internet and Mobile Association of India. If you have not read about it elsewhere, I will summarize the main conclusion for you here: 160 of the 543 constituencies which will participate in the 2014 elections are ‘High Impact’ by dint of their social media presence. In these ‘High Impact’ constituencies, one of these two criteria are met:

1)    Facebook users constitute more than 10% of the voting population, OR

2)    The number of Facebook users is greater than the margin of victory of the winning candidate in the last Lok Sabha election.

So why ‘High Impact’? What exactly is the perceived impact? Well the term itself is predicated on the idea that Facebook can function as more than just a venue for chit-chat, but as a conduit to persuasive information at other sources. How many of you arrived at this page through a link on Facebook? How many have had an opinion swayed by something you saw here? Thus it is argued that the amount of traction a candidate in a ‘High Impact’ constituency can gain through avenues like Facebook will be a crucial, perhaps decisive, factor in their poll performance. The things conveyed by them, and about them, can transform their reputation, and it is in recognition of this that candidates like Narendra Modi have established firm digital footprints.

The report makes for optimistic reading. It goes on to note that as a result of the Internet age, 2014’s electorate will be have more raw information at their disposal than any electorate in India’s past, and thus will be able to make more considered choices. The logic of more social media equals more information equals better decisions seems almost infallible. Indeed, it is a romantic and empowering thought to believe that the most democratic form of media in existence will decide the largest democratic process in the world. Social media can be a venue, now, for fist-pumping, power-to-the-people electioneering. But there remain skeptics as to how effective this may actually be. Sadanand Dhume’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal throws cold water on any premature fires, and suggests that potential and reality are still bridges apart. He says, “In a country where voting often breaks down by caste or religion, there’s no evidence to suggest that any voter’s primary identity is ‘Facebook user’ or ‘Twitter follower.’ And going by precedent, India’s middle class is more adept at squabbling over politics at a dinner party than actually showing up to vote, much less at organizing and campaigning.” If history were anything to be counted on, Dhume has a point here. The urban middle class, which unsurprisingly accounts for the majority of India’s internet users, has been notoriously apathetic in election times. Earlier this year, when the state of Karnataka voted to elect a new government, overall voter turnout was at 70 percent, but in Bangalore – the country’s technology hub, and one of the most densely connected cities in the world – voter turnout was a little more than 50 percent. This malady is not Bangalore’s alone but every major Indian cities’. There is a marked translation gap between the chai-time opinions of the urban voter, and his appearance at the voting booth. So why should we believe that the netizens of India will be truly ‘High Impact’ in the elections of 2014? To put it differently, why should a blog like this one be optimistic about what it can achieve?

Well, for one thing, the Indian electorate has never been younger. It is predicted that there will be 800 million voting-age Indians in 2014, and a record number will be between the ages of 18-25. And not to say that the internet is a young man’s game, but more than 60 percent of India’s internet users are below the age of 30. Further encouragement comes from the fact that the most prominent youth rallies to be organized in the past year, have used the internet as their preferred mode of gathering support. The anti-rape protests in Delhi show that, if nothing else, social media has caused an awakening to activism in segments that may otherwise have stood still. It galvanizes opinion in a direct, participatory manner that is beyond the reach of traditional forms of media. More than that, it amplifies dissatisfaction and unrest. The question of whether the urban Indian will vote in next year’s election is, in a way, the same as asking how much dissatisfaction is necessary to breed a small amount of action. Rest assured, the Internet will ask that question several times.

Youth voting is habit-forming. Youths that vote once will more than likely do it again, and more than likely insist that their friends and families do it too. This one axiom of Indian politics has seemingly eluded the urban psyche for many years: if you vote in larger numbers, then politicians will take you more seriously. With the amplifier effect of the Internet, perhaps this election will finally buck the trend.

Still, however forceful this effect is, however much it may fall short of its potential, there remains an important, symbolic role for social media to play, one that extends far beyond change-mongering. It stems from the fact that, today, an inordinate amount of scrutiny is given to the way Indians exert their freedom of speech, especially online. Suketu Mehta, in his op-ed in the New York Times, details the tenuous status of this most basic civil liberty, and further brings to light the callous distrust the government holds for the average Indian opinionator. Section 66A of the IT act criminalizes “causing annoyance or inconvenience” via online or electronic medium – a wide net, it would seem, certainly one that traps many dissenters on the basis of their targets rather than their actual words. If the curbing of free speech is a sign of an immature democracy, then it stands to reason that it’s in the exercise of free speech that a democracy matures. But is this as straightforward as it sounds? Scroll through the Youtube comments on an India-Pak cricket match, and it is only so long before you stumble upon a death threat against Muslims. These instances, isolated as they are, still provide a strong argument for the policing of the Internet. There is the prevailing global opinion that this is a culture not yet primed to handle the responsibility of free speech. It is here that the opportunity presents itself for social media, independent outlets such as this one, to prove it possible to exercise free speech in a conscientious, diligent manner. By doing so, we are building up credibility for two democracies at once – India and the Internet are both characterized by pockets of infantile behavior, but we should never let this mask the sheer power of their potential. If freedom of speech truly exists in India, it needs to be flexed most at a time when the future of the country is being decided.

As happens every five years, the Indian General Elections of 2014 will renew its record as the largest democratic process the world has ever seen. Through outlets such as this one, you will expose yourself to opinions and ideologies that may be close to home or may be alien to you. You will be exposed to information, more information than an Indian voter has ever had the privilege of. Respect this privilege, especially if you are a first-time voter. What we write here may make you think twice and reconsider your stands, but it’s a responsibility we’ve taken on to give you opinions. Yours, plainly, is the responsibility to decide.

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Hindutva & The Indian Political Landscape

Hinduism is a set of ancient principles, theological ideas, and traditions, bound by moral values and philosophies, that continue to guide billions of people around the world even today. Hindutva is an ideology that aims to promote and sustain the Hindu/ Indian/ Bharatiya way of life. Many define Hindutva as a form of militant Hinduism, but for V.D. Savarkar, the man who coined the term, Hindutva presented an identity to the people living east of the River Indus, those who considered India to be their “pitrabhumi as well as punyabhumi”. Those who consider India to be their Fatherland as well as Holy land are deemed Hindus. Someone who considered India to be its pitrabhumi (Fatherland) would have incentive in the well being of the country and would support actions that were in the interest of the same. Since modern India was a secular nation, the concept of punyabhumi was no longer relevant. Thus, a bastardized form of this concept is today referred to as Nationalism or Jingoism. In short, Hindutva in today’s age is Hindu Nationalism or simply Nationalism of and for those who originate from the geographical region that is Hindustan/ India.

What I am implying as a result is that, Hindutva is an ideology that focuses on the betterment of the Indian society, whether through the advancement of Dharmic ideas and beliefs or through the defense of the Hindu society from the onslaught of foreign militant cultures and beliefs (who do not consider India to be their Fatherland). Recently though in the Indian political landscape, the term Hindutva has unfortunately come to represent a negative connotation of communalism – a polarization of communities across religious lines.  Hindutva, instead, is an ideology that advances the interests of the nation, India as a whole and not that of a particular community specifically.

In advancing the interests of the nation, proponents of Hindutva suggest policies like Uniform Civil Code for all communities regardless of caste, religion or race and the abolition of Article 370 that gives special status to Jammu & Kashmir, an integral part of the Union of India. Ban on Cow slaughter (arguably unconstitutional), as well as a ban on religious conversion are other policies some proponents of Hindu Nationalism support to protect themselves from foreign cultures.  Although some of these policies infringe on personal liberties of individuals in a free society, but maligning them by coupling them with the term communalism is simply adventurous. Communalism is when one community sets to benefit from a particular policy decision made by the state. When state and religion intermingle to form policies that benefit only a few, it is considered communalism. Thus, it’s ironic that the oft-repeated phrase of communal politics continues to be associated with the most fervent opponent of such appeasement – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In every election since its inception, the BJP has sought to promote this idea of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas (Together we grow as one). This is the reason why the BJP wishes to derecognize the special status given to J&K within the Union of India under Article 370. It believes that it is unconstitutional to have two flags and two power centers in a Republic. This is also the reason why the BJP refuses to accept the Congress Government’s minority quotas, as these quotas are unconstitutional by the way of their discrimination based on fluid religious identities. The government has no business in knowing the religion of an individual as it does not provide governance based on the individual’s belief system, the government is a sovereign that must deem all its subjects equal. The BJP must present this point of view and take inspiration in what the political philosopher Locke describes as Secularism:  “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.”

Hence, Hindutva isn’t necessarily a divisive ideology as the mainstream English news media would want us to believe. It is in fact an ancient ideology based on the ideals of nationalism and preservation of one’s cultural identity in a way that provides liberty and freedom to the individual. Although the Ram JamnaBhoomi Movement of the early 1990s in India is commonly referred to as the Hindutva movement, there is a stark contrast between the two. While Hindutva is an ideology espoused by Veer Savarkar, a movement that is somewhat of a renaissance, an ideology of new ideas offering to bring back the glory and honor of being a native of Hindustan (nationalism), Ram Janmabhoomi was a reactive movement that received nationwide acceptance due to the discriminatory actions of the then Rajiv Gandhi government. The handling of the Shah Bano case amongst many others were seen as clear indication of the Congress government’s pandering of Muslim minority vote-bank for electoral gains. As a result, far-right Hindu fundamentalist organizations gained widespread popularity and united a confused electorate in a post-Mandal era. Comparing the Ram Janmabhoomi movement (RJM) to Hindutva would therefore be wrong as RJM was reactive and did not originate as an ideology of original ideas. The movement was only a by-product, a reaction to the policies and appeasement of the then Congress government, easily usurped by politicians trying to find a foothold on the national scene who presented demolishing of a mosque structure as some sort of victory of Hindus over the appeased Muslims.

There is no doubt that the BJP supports construction of a Ram Mandir at the Babri site, but it is a policy that is a subset of its overarching nationalist ideology of Hindutva. While at a time the BJP believed the Ram Mandir was the epitome of India’s cultural identity and had to be constructed to restore the national glory and honor, it must now mature into a political party that understands that economic development and individual liberties are just as important to promote cultural nationalism and assertiveness amongst the youth in being a part of an Indian renaissance. Development, fiscal prudence, liberal economics, reforms, and equality are pillars of future growth and wealth creation –  things the Indian youth of today desires more than anything else. A fast growing economy that lifts millions out of poverty, while raising per capita incomes and standard of living across the country, gives the youth pride in being an Indian, a Bharatiya, or a resident of the Hindu Rashtra. It makes them proud of their Fatherland, their pitrabhumi.

If the BJP demonstrates Hindutva to be an ideology of cultural nationalism, it will be able to align itself more closely with the biggest electorate of the 2014 general elections – its Youth. Led by a dynamic leader, coupled with a reform-driven economic agenda and an aggressive foreign policy, this strategy is bound to yield positive results for the biggest opposition party come summer 2014, while still presenting a nationalist alternative to the current government.

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