26 JANAURY 2016
Grand words, but sobering reality
American President Barack Obama struck a note of strong optimism this week on his country’s bilateral engagement with India, emphasising in an interview the steady economic and strategic convergence that has occurred between Washington and New Delhi on his watch. Indeed, Mr. Obama has held collaborative efforts with the governments of two Indian Prime Ministers, first Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi, to an even keel. Notwithstanding the periodic diplomatic kerfuffle or policy wrinkle, most disruptively over Devyani Khobragade’s detention, bilateral bonhomie has held in areas as diverse as expanding trade and investment, regional and multilateral cooperation, counterterrorism coordination, military joint exercises, and most recently, policies to fight climate change. Particularly with Mr. Modi at the helm, the two countries have steadily added strategic depth to the bilateral relationship, whether on the Indian Ocean Region, the Paris climate change agreement, trilateral exchanges with partners such as Japan, or third-country development projects such as those in the Africa region. Yet, some uncomfortable, unanswered questions remain in this space, and they pertain to terrorist attacks in India emanating from across its western border, to the paralysed civil nuclear agreement, and economic brawls that could, if unchecked, fuel spiralling hostility.
Major terrorist attacks in India — respectively in 2001 (the Parliament complex in New Delhi), 2008 (multiple targets in Mumbai) and in 2016 (Air Force Station in Pathankot) — have opened up a chasm of suspicion between New Delhi and Washington, frustrating India’s foreign policy mandarins over Islamabad’s perceived double-game with Washington. While the U.S. President in the interview this week described the Pathankot attack as “inexcusable”, it is a travesty of justice that terror masterminds Hafiz Saeed, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Masood Azhar are not under arrest despite New Delhi submitting evidence of their complicity. The U.S. administration has leverage over Pakistan in the form of $13 billion in military aid under the Coalition Support Funds programme, so why only use words to chastise non-action on this front? Regarding India-U.S. civil nuclear energy cooperation, Mr. Obama expressed the hope that in the year ahead there would be deals for American companies to build new reactors; yet it is hard to see how this would materialise given the insurance conundrum stemming from India’s Nuclear Liability Law, which provides for legitimate protection in the event of a nuclear accident. Finally, a troubling question mark hangs over India, along with China, remaining outside the framework of the U.S.-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership. Exclusion from this trade framework may result in Indian firms losing market share to TPP signatories. Add to this the spate of mini-squabbles that have broken out over intellectual property rights protection and compulsory licences in India, over visa restrictions in the U.S. and a host of trade disputes that have reached the World Trade Organisation, and Mr. Obama’s comment that the bilateral relationship had “absolutely not” reached its full potential seems perfectly accurate.
A debate beyond ‘clicktivism’
The consultation process set in motion by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on the issue of differential pricing of cellular data has set off a full-scale and no-holds-barred war of words between the authority and Facebook. The spat came into the public domain last week when TRAI released its e-mail exchanges with the social networking giant. The telecom regulator is clearly concerned about the unabashed enthusiasm demonstrated by Facebook to utilise — indeed, exploit — the consultation process to drum up support for its Free Basics product. TRAI was scathing in its criticism of Facebook’s high-intensity lobbying exercise. The regulator minced no words, and accused Facebook of converting its consultation process into a “crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll’’. Also, TRAI is convinced that the campaign by Facebook to defend its free Internet platform “is wholly misplaced” as the consultation paper is only on differential pricing for data services and not on any particular product or service. The social networking giant has been collating responses from users of its platform, and forwarding them to TRAI. Somewhere in this process, Facebook felt that somebody with access to the TRAI e-mail account had blocked the receipt of its e-mails. That accusation was enough to provoke a confrontation with TRAI. More than anything else, the stand-off between the two has brought the focus on the efficacy of the consultation process in an environment where private enterprise is increasingly gaining greater clout. Also, it raises serious questions on the lobbying practices followed to shape outcomes in a consultation process, and the potential impact on policy formulations.
In the Information Age, where communication enterprises are not just controlling but also redefining the way we interact, it is imprudent and even risky to let them have a free run in setting the policy agenda. The right to do business does not automatically give them the freedom to misuse their platforms to hijack policy initiatives by swaying public opinion. By means of its action, Facebook clearly has walked into the ‘conflict of interest’ argument. In the wake of rising support for net neutrality, Facebook launched a multi-million dollar campaign late last year to support Free Basics, a re-branded version of its internet.org. How tenable is it for an interested enterprise like Facebook to play a facilitating role in the consultation process initiated by TRAI? The ‘template response’ that it has procured from its users naturally has no articulation on the points made by TRAI. Moreover, Facebook cannot arrogate to itself the right to represent users just because they use its platform. The TRAI-Facebook face-off, unfortunately, has deflected the focus from the real issue: what kind of Internet access will suit a country like India with over a billion people? A solution must focus on providing maximum benefit to the poor.