Wednesday, 31 July 2013

India: a divided and a racist society?

A change of social attitude and mindset is required for inclusive growth in India  

Sick children in Patna hospital 
From a PR point of view, the release of Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen’s new book An Uncertain Glory couldn’t have been timelier.  With Indian elections less than a year away, and a gloomy economic climate looming over, the book is going to stimulate intellectual debates and a‘reasoned public engagement’ on India’s socio –economic policies.

The book is already being invoked: last week Meghnad Desai writing for The Sunday Express cited the authors, and endorsed (from what I gather from reading the first couple of chapters of the book) that the story of Indian growth has been elitist and the vast majority of the population hasn’t benefited from India’s 20 years of economic growth.

Meghnad Desai also makes a very valid point: the Indian society has no sense of  “equality of respect”, and asserts that social equality is needed for inclusive growth.

How do you achieve social equality in India? Can concerted government policies alone bring in social equality?  The answer is 'no'. There has to be first a social acceptance for social equality. Whilst it is true that one of the primary reasons for India’s lack of social and physical infrastructure, and high levels of poverty is bad governance and corruption, but on the other hand, India’s highly conscious caste and class based society, i.e. we the people of India are equally responsible for the gross deprivation of a vast majority of India’s population.

Class and caste divisions

Let’s consider the following:

Since centuries, casteism and economic inequality have created a master- slave relation in India, with the poor serving the rich and the middle class.  By and large most Indians don’t want this social status quo to change. How many urban educated Indians actually allow their maids and domestic help to eat with them on same table and sit on the same sofa? What do we do for the welfare of the families of our maids, gardeners, security guards and drivers? Should this sector not be formalized to give them a sense of dignity and some rights for their professions?

Upward mobility in India is a race. Even when people from the economically weak section make it to the ranks of middle class and above, in most cases, they themselves become indifferent to he plight of others.  The attitude of indifference coupled with extreme arrogance of the novae-rich reinforces social inequality with much more vengeance and force.

 We lack the dignity of labour.  Since most upper class Indians grow up believing that some types of work are for people who are poor and illiterate, when someone from that background makes it big, we immediately question their social credentials.

In terms of education, compare a student from a rural government school and a well to do private school. The difference in quality of education and even the very basic facilities are so huge that the race is decided even before it is run. It is not that the government is not spending on education, but again the people running the show don’t want that the schools of  the poor are at par with the well to do.

In Bihar, where the death of 20 children after eating mid-day meal could have been averted if the people in charge had systematically monitored the meals or even a simplest protocol in regard to the management of food by headmistress was followed. 

Finally, there is always a structural relation between poverty, illiteracy and politics. Keeping people poor and illiterate serves the purpose of the politicians, as it is easy to fool the poor.

The list could go on, but the point is that social inclusion in India requires a change of mindset of the people, and unless we ourselves open up and take ownership of our duties,  any efforts for inclusive growth will be an illusion.

For the harsh reality is that believe it or not we are one of the most racist society on the planet in more than one ways. This is unfortunate and is against the spirit of the constitution of the world's largest democracy.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Why Facebook 'likes' matter to politicians?

Social media seems to be have caught up the imagination of political leaders in India, and, like everything else in Indian politics, it has sparked a new controversy. 

Indian media reports say that Indian politicians are ‘faking’ it online. A news report on NDTV- an English national news channel- says that number of ‘likes’ on the Facebook page of the Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has suddenly doubled in just a month (216049 likes). Interestingly, the report says the most number of ‘likes’ have been clicked not in his home state, or in India, but in Istanbul! India’s opposition party the BJP has accused the Congress chief minster of buying the ‘likes’.  

The use of social media by political parties and governments are increasingly becoming popular across the world. The Chilean government was one of the first to broadcast press releases on Twitter. The US State Department, for example, actively engages with its audience by organizing a series on events on its Facebook page. It allows the audience to directly interact with key figures in the US political circle.

Following Mr. Kerry’s visit to India, the US Department of State organized a Facebook event titled “India and America: A Defining Partnership of the 21st Century”, where Ambassador Robert O Blake directly took questions from the audience all over the world. It was an example of reaching out and directly engaging with the most important stakeholder “the people”.  This is probably one of the major advantages of using social media: to be able to interact directly with the audience.

In India, the Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi has been on the forefront of integrating various digital media tools. His dynamic website is rich in content, and his social engagements and agendas are actively posted on Facebook and Twitter. His public speeches are instantly put on YouTube.

Social media tools are a great way of communicating with the public. It obviates the traditional modes of communication, and the public, in turn, can directly interact with their leader.

If a person’s query is responded to on social media platform, it can help create a favorable image for the party and of  the politician.  The follower feels acknowledged and derives satisfaction.

Managing digital reputation

Imagine a situation where a, voter is undecided whom to vote for. He might simply Google the name of the leader to make up his mind based on the content the search result generates. It can simply influence his decision. However, in absolute terms more Facebook 'like' doesn't mean more votes! 

Can the search result be managed, manipulated or controlled? Yes, to a certain degree by putting a massive content on the website, blog and on other social media platforms.  Google is more likely to toss up information on the top of a page if the ‘subject’ or the ‘topic’ is invariably linked to social media sites.

The manner in which Google optimization works, it is likely that the content on Facebook, Twitter, blog or website will show up on the top of a page. In public relations, the strategy adopted for maintaining such an outcome is called digital reputation management.

Many politicians and corporates hire PR firms both in India and abroad to manage their digital reputation.  Flooding the internet with positive information on a topic or a person and then maximizing it with  ‘hits’ can push existing negative reports on the back pages of a Google search.

 For example, if you type ‘Narendra Modi’, you are likely to notice that his website will appear above a popular news website that carries his name on that day.  His Twitter, Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube will also be ranked amongst the top ten pages.  A general search on Modi will not show anything that is negative about him. It is precisely for this reason the politicians like to have more followers on their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Sometimes, smart PR companies dispatch hundreds of not very relevant press releases to smaller targeted news organizations. Once these smaller organizations publish the release online, it can be used as a reference to make a Wikipedia entry- another website that Google loves. (In Wikipedia every sentence requires reference.)

In India, the use of the Internet and smart phones are growing phenomenally. Creative digital videos and smart management of social media tools will soon become an important tool for campaigning.  If done wisely, it will have a decisive say in the over outcome of elections results in the years to come. Let the cyber war begin!