Saturday, January 31, 2009

"The baby that cries, gets the milk" (A day at the Conference on Electoral and Political Reforms)

The Beginning

The invite came from Anil Bairwal of ADR (Association of Democratic Reforms) and the plan was set. The 5th Annual ‘Conference on Electoral and Political Reforms’ was to be held in Mumbai and what could be a better weekend to the week that started with the launch of ‘Never Forget’.
When we entered the grand auditorium of Nehru Centre in Worli, Anil Bairwal was already on the mike, anchoring the event and politely requesting the still-contemplating delegates to take the seat. Anushka Manchanda, of the now-defunct band of girls Viva, opened the conference with her live performance which centered around 26/11 and its aftermath. She confessed to having gotten her Voter Id for the first time this year, and appealed to the ‘internet’ generation to do the same.

How I drifted

Then started the real action. Prof. Trilochan Sastry, Dean IIM-Bangalore, presented the opening address and quoted the 2002 Supreme Court ruling which made it mandatory for the candidates to file a sworn affidavit about their financial, educational, and criminal background. This particular ruling became the bedrock of election watch organizations like ADR, and led to decriminalization of politics to a great extent in the last 3-4 years. He added a sensational (and true!) statement to the above – “For the first time since Independence, we have the criminal background data of all the elected MPs in the parliament.” (Applause.)

He also talked briefly about what we (at NF) stand for – accountability. “It’s a sad truth that no election manifesto is ever fulfilled.” At this point, a thought struck me. Why are we, as a nation, so obsessed with elections? As per Prof. Sastry – there are at least 1200 Election Watch NGOs in India, which are now working together for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. I understand that elections are the only time we exercise our right to elect, and they set the course for the next 5 years (or less, depending on when and how many MPs defect :-). I also appreciate, in fact am in awe of, the work done by ADR and similar organizations – they have actually made a difference even in states like UP and Bihar where terms like ‘Baahu-Bali’ are an indicator of a million things. But as I said, I wondered, what about the time period between one election and the next? How many NGOs are there asking for accountability? Are we not just keeping the ‘apparent idea of democracy’ alive by voting and then forgetting till the next elections?
(I missed some points while going on this trip of mine…and Prof. Sastry was done.)

Can they be reformed?

Next in was the first panel discussion of the day – Political Reforms. Moderated by that veteran of Panel Discussions on NDTV, Sreenivasan Jain (who was understandably off-key, fumbling, or banal in the absence of a TV camera) – the discussion itself drifted into a direct fight between Suresh Prabhu (MP from Mumbai) and the blood-thirsty audience. A few very sensible points were made by Ms. Aruna Roy (Magasaysay Award Winner and one of the most active RTI activists in India) who put the onus back on common man to ask for better delivery and added that “RTI is all you need.” When Suresh Prabhu justified the growing money-power during election time by saying – there is no option as we have to spend what the next guy is spending, else we stand to lose, she fired back saying – There is an option to spending more money. And that is – work harder! (But then, bashing a politician is as easy as cracking a blonde joke.)
The session ended on a good note with many audience members jumping up to ask questions (including a man who was sleeping all through, sitting next to me. He didn’t get a chance to ask and I was left wondering what the heck he would have asked.)

The Q and A threw up some interesting facts like the South Africa model of elections where no candidate is allowed to spend even a single penny and the state funds the election campaigns. One of the panelists (Rajesh Tandon) quoted some French (who else!) philosopher – “Politics needs sensible men with significant means.” So, a discussion which started with concerns about money dirtying politics, ended with a concealed acceptance of the fact that not much could be changed.

The CEC address

Chief Election Commissioner, N. Gopalaswami, was to address the conference just before lunch but his session was shifted up due to time issues. He started with a pat on the back for the work done by ADR and agreed that it’s a tough job to catch all the erring politicians. “It’s always like we are chasing a thief…and thief is always one step ahead.” He gave out lots of numbers indicating how bad it is out there, during the last 15-days of election-campaign. Some of the figures/instances I remember are – “22 Crores cash stashed in an ambulance…” “liquor intake of Punjab rose from 2.5 Lakh litres to 20 Lakh litres in the month of elections”, “150 crores spent in a single lok-sabha bypoll” and more mindboggling numbers.

He also agreed to the resolutions put forward by the conference (to decriminalize politics further) and addressed one of them in particular – the ‘Right to NOT vote’ demand by ADR. (The famous hoax mail titled ’Article 49-O’ may ring a bell here.) He said that giving the right to NOT vote in the current scenario is technically in direct conflict with the ‘secret vote’ funda. Since the AVMs don’t have a ‘no vote’ option, and since the officer at the booth has to account for every person entering to vote, he (the officer) will be forced to note down the name of the person who didn’t hit the pad, as a result, ‘uncovering’ him. So, till the time the government agrees to have a no-vote option, this is a dream on a hoax mail.

On me asking (post-presentation Q &A) specifically whether the issue is only technical or he has a fundamental take on the issue too, he said he had no fundamental issues with it. “It’s your vote, you decide how to use it. I will just give you an option.” And when I asked, ‘But then, in case of a majority with ‘No Votes’, will there be a re-election’, he dodged the question by saying ‘the law has to be changed for that…and that will come from the government. We are just a regulatory body.’

People further prodded him to get Election Commission to play a bigger role in democratic processes post-election and one guy even suggested that EC keeps a tab on ’promises in the manifesto and how they are delivered’ (yes, accountability!) – he got slightly upset and said – why should EC do your job? That’s something you should demand. And ended on these golden words – “The baby that cries, gets the milk.”

Friday, January 30, 2009

A thousand hits, and a new look!

Last night, the website crossed 1000+ visits! this, accompanied by the other numbers (we now have 40+ sign-ups!) and emails sent from iPhones, are very encouraging to us. Thanks to you all!

Additionally, the content on the main page has been revamped, as well as that on the about us page. A new specific page on the team has also been added. But perhaps the closest to our heart is the page on 26/11 -- our leitmotif, which explains what finally pushed us over the edge to stop sitting on our collective behinds!

Next step: customizing the look at feel of this blog to make it look like the rest of the site. Any blogger experts listening?

Close Encounters of the Politician Kind (with due apologies to Steven Spielberg!) Part 1

As a part of our pre launch initiative,we wrote to 3 politicians holding office,requesting them to demonstrate their approval/ encouragement (thereby adding steam and bestowing blessings:-)) for the NEVER FORGET endeavor by making available to us their party/personal manifesto/promises.

There were reactions from all three but the “happy face” inducing was the one keyed in personally by the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir,Mr.Omar Abdullah…….

“Our common minimum programme is a work in progress at the moment.

I will forward your email to my party colleagues in the National Conference to make available to you our manifesto & our agenda for governance.

Best wishes,
Omar Abdullah”
Sent from my iPhone

More Power to the youthful,savvy,accessible,progressive achiever face of the Indian Politician ?

p.s.:Part 2 and Part 3 coming up soon!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Launch in Numbers

3 days since the launch.

974 site visits.
page views.

41 members in the facebook group.
47 people signed up for announcements

2 sitting MPs and 1 sitting CM respond favorably to our emails.

and to top it all

37 action-oriented people from 8 states signed up to make a difference.

Yes, we are getting somewhere :-).

Thanks for choosing Action over Words!

This is from a mass thank-you email sent out last night to all those who signed up. Posted here to share/express our excitement to see so many action-oriented fellow-netizens.


At the outset, I must say that we at the team are extremely excited and overwhelmed by the responses we have seen so far to the website, and especially to the "make a difference page"!

We will be responding to each of you individually in the next couple of days [didn't we say we were overwhelmed :-) ], but this mail is to say a quick and loud "thank you!" to you all.

Quick piece of news: We will be at an election reform conference in Mumbai this weekend, meeting like-minded social organizations, and sharing our ideas. More updates to follow at our blog .

Also, we would like to share some quick points with you all:

1. We have gotten responses from 27 people of 8 different states so far. This is great news, as the main goal of this system is for the electorate to track their own representatives, no matter what the level of governance is.

2. We have also received positive responses to our communiques from a sitting MP, and a sitting chief minister [an email from his iPhone, no less] ! More details will be revealed soon :-).

3. Over the next few days, we will be inviting you all to a [very low traffic] team mailing list, so we can have short action oriented discussions over some common topics. Note that this will be different from the announcement mailing list, which is for one-way communication.

4. [ @Abi ] Minor clarification #1: To submit data in the system, one _does not_ need to register. For example, for tracking the MP of Pune, anyone can use the form here. However, much like the editing feature in wikipedia, only when the data submitted in the form has been validated by the team in-charge of that region [Pune in this case], will it go online on the website.

5. [ @Vaibhav ] Minor clarification #2: Please note that there is no bar on which "type" of elected representative we enable the tracking of. At the highest level, we treat the "central government" as one entity, but also each MP as a separate entity, since they both make separate "promises". The same follows for states, cities, and even villages. The current map only shows MPs since that is the only list of names we managed to collect for the launch :-).

6. [ @Ragini ] The main objective of this initiative is to provide a platform where the average voter can a) contibute data about the promise-fulfilment performance of their elected representatives, and b) consult this data to decide their vote come election time. Well-written articles based on [and citing] our data core will go a very long way in reaching out to the common citizen, who might not have the time to go through the raw data.

Hope this has cleared some questions that were asked by you in the form. More info will come in the coming few days, as we prepare to handle the deluge of enthusiasm you all have shown, and also prepare for the meet this weekend.

In the meantime, please keep spreading the word about the site among your friends and loved ones, and let us know if you have any questions/comments.

with best wishes,
Part of the Never Forget Team

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Blogosphere Coverage on the Launch

The launch of the website got coverage from some blogs , from smalltime ones such as those by cat, 1conoclast, and animesh, and by the big one, nanopolitan, by abi, who has presented a detailed first take on the site.

Thanks a lot bloggers! Spreading the word is what we need at this stage.

We have done the "build it" part of the game. The "they will come" part is up to you!

update: Thanks to Abi, it is on desipundit also now!
update 2: Thanks to A.I. for posting it on mantrarudraksh and to Abhishek for the post on furobike.

Monday, January 26, 2009


WELCOME to the first cut of our wee contribution ...Animesh may probably disagree :-) the collective national good .
In the coming days we are hopeful of making this entity into a zestful and informative repository of newsworthy material and a forum to lock-horns :-) on topical issues.
Looking forward to your views, your reviews , your association, your collaboration, your appreciation!!
Have a good day all.