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Showing posts with label democracy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label democracy. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Tweets, Teens and the Fragile Indian Union

Activists burn an effigy depicting Greta Thunberg in Delhi. Photo: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

“Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
-Thurgood Marshall

American pop singer Rihanna sent out a perfectly innocuous tweet on 2nd February asking “Why aren’t we talking about this?! referring to the Indian farmer protests that have been ongoing since November last year. Rihanna’s tweet was followed by one from Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, saying “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India” and she attached a toolkit (not created by her) with actions people can take to support the farmers.

What came next might make people think that India had suffered a foreign-state-sponsored disinformation campaign or that the country was infiltrated by terrorists linked to Pakistan. 

Amit Shah, the Home Minister tweeted that “No propaganda can deter India’s unity! No propaganda can stop India to attain new heights!” This was followed by a tweet storm from prominent Bollywood celebrities like Akshay Kumar Suniel Shetty and Ajay Devgn and famous cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Ravi Shastri.

Interestingly, all their tweets were closely worded and echoed the government’s official line about protecting India’s sovereignty and not letting “external forces” interfere with internal matters. One would be forgiven for thinking that they mindlessly followed a script; even using the hashtags, #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda, being promoted by the government. 

As if on cue, and without any evidence, BJP leaders took to the airwaves and began inflaming passions by claiming that the toolkit was “evidence of international plans for attacks against India”. Promptly, a police case was filed against Thunberg’s tweet and an investigation launched into determining the origins of the toolkit. The threat to India’s sovereignty was considered so grave and the danger so palpable, by these two female masterminds, that grown men decided to take to the streets and burn effigies of Rihanna and Greta Thunberg.

The government’s Ministry of Internal Affairs demanded that Twitter block the accounts of anyone supporting farmers, or criticizing Mr. Modi; including suspending accounts of prominent activists and journalists. Twitter initially complied with the request, but later relented after widespread outrage from Indian citizens and some international pressure.

It is clear Mr. Modi is ratted and his government is scared because their only answer seems to be to shut down the internet, quash free speech and muzzle the press. They have been charging journalists who cover the farmer protests, with draconian Colonial era sedition charges. Now they are threatening to punish Twitter employees with fines and seven years in jail for restoring Twitter accounts. It seems the media manipulator and social media master, Mr. Modi, does not take kindly to being bested by a Swedish teen. I guess there is not much point in Mr. Modi having a 56-inch chest because he clearly lacks a spine.

This whole episode also begs the question about where our celebrities’ priorities lie because I don’t recall this fear for India’s unity when the ruling party, which has a majority in both houses, passed the farm reform bill by circumventing electronic voting. They pushed the bill through with brute force with an unreliable and undemocratic voice vote.

Nor did these celebrities express their righteous anger when the opposition parties of Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Trinamool Congress, and DMK said they were not allowed to debate the bill and had their mics muted. Nor do I recall any of these noble Indians being concerned about our freedoms being eroded when the media reported that the government also suspended the audio on the Rajya Sabha TV broadcast during the passage of this contentious bill.

Seventy-three years after Independence, if India’s unity is so desperately fragile that a Swedish teen and American popstar can upend it with two tweets, then we should just admit defeat with this experiment in self-rule. Mr. Modi and his government should pack their bags, call the Queen to invoke the British Empire’s return policy and hand India back to them. Given the mess the UK is in after Brexit, I expect they will jump at the chance to regain the Jewel in their Crown. 

India is the world’s largest and most culturally rich and diverse democracy on earth. We should be a beacon of freedom and a guiding light for the world, but under Mr. Modi we are behaving more like the de facto dictatorships of China, Russia and Iran, whose leaders feign democratic principles but curtail free speech and quash public debate and all criticism of government by restricting internet access and imprisoning journalists.

In 2020 alone Modi’s government shut down the internet over 75 times – more than any other country in the world. Beyond curtailing free speech, this desperate action by our government also hurts us from an economic perspective. India’s shutdowns are estimated to cost the economy $2.8 billion a year. Not exactly a great example for a country that wants to be a global economic power and for a Prime Minster who has championed an initiative called Digital India.


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Justice Ginsburg, Our Democracy and Doing the Right Thing

Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg ride an elephant in India.

(Image: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)


"Sometimes it helps to be a little deaf."
-Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I was deeply saddened to hear of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, but have become more concerned with the effect it will have on our ailing democracy. The political battle to fill her seat will provide fuel to an out-of-control partisan fire, forty-five days before what is already one of the most divisive and contentious elections in our history.

Even before RBG’s body was laid to rest, the battle lines were drawn along the predictable partisan lines. Mitch McConnell sounded the Republican battle cry by releasing a statement the same evening intimating that he would ensure Mr. Trump’s nominee received a floor vote on the Senate. Conservative media followed suit with a chorus of approval and a stark warning for their elected leaders that they must procee“because the Democrats intend to crush us if they can, and if the GOP wimps out, our voters will melt down.

Liberal media too came prepared for battle. A Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist opined that “if Republicans do give Ginsburg’s seat to some Federalist Society fanatic, Democrats must, if they win back the presidency and the Senate, abolish the filibuster and expand the court, adding two seats to account for both Garland and Ginsburg.” The paper’s editorial board followed with an attempt to rile the liberal base saying “Senate Republicans, who represent a minority of the nation, and a president elected by a minority of the nation, are now in a position to solidify their control of the third branch of government.”

I too felt the anger and moral outrage being expressed by my liberal tribe, and dismay at Mr. McConnell’s hypocrisy. In 2016, he refused to even hold hearings for President Obama’s nominee, saying that it was too close to an election. Now even closer to an election, he is marching forward only because his party has the advantage.

We live in an age where we feel pressure to constantly react on social media, before our brains have time to process, reflect and thoughtfully consider information. We know that our brains function best when we take the time to consider complex issues, rather than react in the moment. Studies show that the more time we spend on social media the more it leads to Groupthink, described by Irving L. Janis’s in his 1970’s book as the “deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.”

This time I decided not to react. I turned off social media, read what the constitution mandated, looked for historical precedents and spent time reviewing arguments from both sides.

Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution empowers the president to nominate any individual he or she chooses. The nominee must then face hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which votes to send the nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. We can argue about nominating someone so close to an election, but there is nothing in the constitution that prohibits this.

In 1968 President Lyndon Johnson found himself in a similar predicament when he nominated a Supreme Court justice after stating that that he would not seek a second-term. His announcement all but guaranteed that Richard Nixon would win the upcoming election, since the Democrat’s best hope to beat him, Robert F. Kennedy, had been assassinated.

Despite Mr. Johnson’s lame duck status the Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen went against his party and supported the nomineebecause he respected his legal brilliance and said it was the right thing to do. Even Nixon who had made appointing law and order justice’s a campaign promise did not oppose it, saying he “would not interfere with the Senate’s right to decide on the nomination.” In the end majority Southern Democrats joined by minority Republicans managed to filibuster the nomination which led Johnson to withdraw his nominee.

In 1992, Joe Biden, then Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, forcefully argued that if President Bush put forward a Supreme Court nominee during an election year, his committee would "seriously consider not scheduling confirmation hearings on the nomination until after the political campaign season is over". Much like Mr. McConnell explained how the situation in 2016 was different, Mr. Biden too had an explanation for his changed stance after being accused of similar hypocrisy.

Biden had also argued in 2016 that the Republican senate’s reluctance to fill the vacancy could “lead to a genuine constitutional crisis, born out of the dysfunction of Washington…”. This outcome is more likely now with a contentious election that might end up in the courts, especially since we have an incumbent President who refuses to say if he will accept the election result. With eight justices it is possible the court will become deadlocked, which means the decision would default to a lower court ruling.

Democrats also need to accept responsibility for the hyper-partisan nomination processes that we now routinely witness. In 2013, when Democrats controlled the White House and Senate, Harry Reid the Senate majority leader used the ‘nuclear option’ to change a long-standing rule that required 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, to a simple majority. He did this for all executive appointments and judicial nominations, excluding the Supreme Court. The move was considered short-sighted and criticized by scholars, pundits, current and former politicians on both sides. Republican Senator John Thune begged Mr. Reid not to proceed and warned him “What goes around comes around.” In 2016, Republicans back in control of the Senate returned the favour by invoking the nuclear option to appoint Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Interestingly, I came across a 2016 New York Times interview with Justice Ginsburg, where she unequivocally states that it is the President’s duty to fill a vacancy and the Senate’s job to take up the vote. She adds “there’s nothing in the Constitution that says the president stops being president in his last year.”

There are many things to admire about Justice Ginsburg but her fearlessness and independent-mindedness are what I most admired. Even though she was a liberal icon, she was never afraid to break from the tribe and stand against the majority view.

She publicly defended Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, saying they were both " very decent and very smart individuals".  She was staunchly against a growing chorus in the Democratic Party that wants to pack the courts. She reiterated this position last year saying that "If anything would make the court look partisan, it would be that – one side saying, 'When we're in power, we're going to enlarge the number of judges, so we would have more people who would vote the way we want them to.” Never shy to express an opinion, she did not agree with Colin Kaepernick’s racial justice protest, saying in 2016 that kneeling for the national anthem was dumb and disrespectful.”

At a time when a Pew Research survey finds that only 45 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans say they share any “values and goals” with members of the other party, we need to remind ourselves of her close friendship with Antonin Scalia. Two people who could not have been further apart on the ideological spectrum. As a tribute, Justice Scalia’s son shared a string of tweets showing how deeply his father cared for ‘Ruth’. The late justice once challenged by someone about the fact that his friendship with Ruth had not resulted in any support from her on the bench, responded by saying, “some things in life are more important than votes".

I believe Justice Ginsburg would want us all to remember that we are not warring enemy factions but an opinionated and cantankerous democracy. When a family of four cannot agree on pizza toppings, why do we expect 330 million people to agree on far more contentious issues?

The point is that we need to respect and celebrate not just diversity of skin colour but also of our wildly differing viewpoints. Like every family, we do not have to agree on everything but we do need to find ways to compromise and live together under the same roof. If we continue to blindly default to preset partisan positions, and think of ourselves as us and them, we will only serve to weaken our union and allow adversaries like Russia to exploit these divisions.

At a time when the future of our union is in danger and the credibility of our democratic institutions continues to be imperiled by increasing political polarisation, I believe we the people need to break this cycle of tit for tat partisan escalation.

There is no evidence that Republican-appointed justices destroy the ‘liberal way of life’. In fact, the opposite is true. The data and evidence shows that Democrat appointed justices remain solidly liberal while Republican appointed justices shift leftwards over time. Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, both Reagan appointees moved solidly leftwards, as did John Paul Stevens, who was appointed as a moderate. David Souter, a George H. W. Bush appointee, considered to be solid conservative, became a reliably liberal voice on governmental powers, social justice and equal protection issues. Even Antonin Scalia’s views liberalized from his extremely conservative positions of the late 1990s. More recently, Chief Justice John Roberts has routinely sided with the liberal wing on high profile cases, much to the dismay of Conservatives.

Also, polls show that the Supreme Court remains one of the most trusted institutions, even after Trump’s two appointments, with nearly 70 percent of respondents in an Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey saying they trust the court to “operate in the best interests of the American people”. Contrast this with Congress’s approval rating, which stands at 18 percent.

Democratic Senator Christopher Murphy said in 2016 that “The president fulfilled his constitutional obligation today, now the Senate must fulfill ours ... If Senate Republicans refuse to consider the president’s nominee, they will be willingly violating the spirit of that sworn oath”. Republicans had zero justification to block President Obama’s nominee. It was nothing more than an unprincipled and calculated political maneuver. But the same holds true now and two wrongs don’t make a right. For this reason, my conscience will not permit me to block hearings and a vote on President Trump’s nominee because unlike Mr. McConnell and his Republican colleagues, I am no hypocrite.

Doing the right thing is never meant to be easy, convenient, or done only when a desired outcome is guaranteed. Following Justice Ginsburg’s advice I am going to be a little deaf to the din of my liberal tribe baying for revenge and break the cycle of partisan vengeance.

I believe it is the right thing to do for the future of our democracy. Some things are more important than political victories.