There are many conflicting views of the role being played by social media in 2019 general election. For many politicians, and not necessarily those confined to a particular age group, social media is a strange and unfamiliar beast that distracts from the ‘real’ campaign-meeting and speaking to people. Mercifully, this has now become a minority view. Most political workers recognise that the sheer size of a Lok Sabha constituency makes personal interaction and door-to-door meetings with voters almost an impossible task. Consequently, social media serves as an additional mode of communication, particularly to voters who like to know what a party or candidate stands for.
This election, partly as result of pressure from individuals who have learnt too many needless lessons about ‘fake news’ and alleged Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum and the election of US President Donald Trump, there is an organised attempt to regulate the use of social media. Companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat are also understandably anxious because governments tend to demand that social media platforms take responsibility for all that appears on their sites. Consequently, most sites have set up their own censor boards to monitor content and, if necessary, block accounts. Many social media activists have had their accounts blocked as a result. Some of these strong actions may be warranted but in a large number of cases, Facebook pages and Twitter handles have been blocked on account of their political partisanship.
This raises a more fundamental question. One of the main functions of election campaigns is to expose voters to different and conflicting perspectives so that they can take informed decisions. Yet, informed decisions cannot really be taken on the strength of sanitised party political broadcasts on Doordarshan. Polemical exchanges may be funny or offensive but they are central to electoral competition. Partisanship is a key feature of democracy, and certainly during an election when people are choosing their futures. To censor these exchanges — unless on account of unacceptable offensiveness — makes no sense. There is, for example, a professor of media studies somewhere in California who has made it his business to intervene in Indian political matters. He is often funny, always strongly biased against Narendra Modi and the BJP, and more often than is strictly necessary, falls back on four letter words. Yet, I would be absolutely horrified if, for some reason, Twitter suspended his account in the same way as it has suspended the handle of Rishee Bagree, a young man from Kolkata, who posts pro-Modi tweets.
This is a problem that the EC too has been confronted with. The self-appointed high priests of electoral decorousness have been urging the EC to come down hard on all those who are apparently in violation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), Mayawati was barred from campaigning for 48 hours for urging the polarisation of Muslim votes, Azam Khan for his personal attacks on Jayaprada, Yogi Adityanath for his Ali-Bajrangbali remarks and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi for describing a political opponent as Mocambo. The last action was particularly ridiculous.
However, apart from Azam Khan’s tasteless remarks on Jayaprada, I could not find fault with what Mayawati said. Every second secularist pundit writing in the editorial pages has been singing the virtues of Muslim consolidation against Modi. Likewise, on social media at least, there have been voices encouraging Hindu consolidation in favour of Modi. Now, we may not like the consolidation of votes on the strength of identity, but we can scarcely deny its existence on the ground. By preventing the political players from speaking about it openly, we are merely driving the phenomenon underground. We aren’t going to stop identity politics by this.
Likewise, I don’t see the purpose behind the EC action against the biopic or the demand for a similar ban on the Bengali film Baghini, said to be inspired on the life of Mamata Banerjee. That these films are probably one-sided in their depiction and hagiographic in nature are probably undeniable. But so what? There is no misuse of Government machinery and there is no compulsion to see the films. Those who do so are doing so voluntarily and paying taxes in the process. They may or may not get politically influenced. But does that matter?
The purpose of the MCC is not to ban politics but to differentiate the acceptable from the unacceptable. Among those that count as unacceptable are the misuse of Government machinery, the bribery of voters and communities, the establishment of a level playing field in the campaign, the prevention of harassment of citizens (such as the post-10pm ban on the use of loudspeakers) and some ordinary civility in the use of language. The intention is to ensure political discourse is channelled within consensual parameters.
Unfortunately, apart from the EC, there are the NGO-type watchdogs who make it their business to be the guardians of political morality. These are the very same people that introduced NOTA to the ballot — an exercise in complete futility since those preferring it have remained a minusculity. It is their moral pressure to restrict the scope of politics that has led to EC to impose bans on musical parodies, wedding cards that called for a vote for Modi and even a book release. Apart from anything else, these measures are an assault on Constitutional freedoms. To my mind that is quite absurd since the ostensible purpose of elections is democratic choice and the fulfilment of the principle of popular sovereignty. We need a sense of responsibility but we don’t need the voters and candidates to be put on a leash. The festival of democracy must be a festival not a vipassana.