Print Edition - 2018-07-21  |  On Saturday

Governance in the age of social media

  • The gov’t has to take people’s concerns and aspirations seriously. When there is an exchange of views, democracy thrives through debate and self-correction
- Mohan Guragain

Jul 21, 2018-I don’t suppose I have addictive food habits but I am compulsive about consuming information. As a journalist, I’m always on the lookout for new information, especially events and happenings. Even when all other sources are exhausted, social media pages never run out of information. Day in and day out, I scroll through timelines in my quest to find new ideas and perspectives.

Social media plays an important role in difficult times. For instance, during a border blockade in 2015, even as New Delhi restricted the supply of fuel and other essential goods citing disruption of roads in the Tarai, the optical fibre links were not severed. It was this access of communication to the wider world that the Indian rhetoric of Nepal’s discriminatory constitution found few takers in the international forum.

More recently, the Oli government has faced widespread criticism of its handling of the indefinite hunger strike by Dr Govinda KC, who has been fighting for reforms in the country’s medical education sector. When PM Oli criticised leaders, members and supporters of his Nepal Communist Party (NCP) for failing to defend the stances of his government, his frustration may have been prompted by the widespread disapproval of his regime’s attitude towards Dr KC’s crusade, as expressed on social media.

Editor Prateek Pradhan captured the public sentiment over this issue in a tweet: “The government has few other options than silencing the voice of Dr KC’s supporters by shutting down the internet or presenting a new bill in accordance with the ordinance by withdrawing the proposed bill.”

The government faces intense criticism for turning down the “socialist” demands of Dr KC that medical education should not be managed by profit mongers. Dr KC has denounced the prevailing practice in the country that, barring some scholarship quotas, medical education is out of the common Nepali person’s reach. He argues that a health professional who graduated by spending millions of rupees cannot truly serve patients since s/he will have to recover the huge amount of money that went into the MBBS or MD degree. Intellectuals on social networks write that Dr KC’s agendas should easily have been part of the leftist government’s very own policy.

In the past, media houses were the sole arbiters of ‘news’ which was first collected then delivered by them to an audience. Social networking sites changed that model of communication, making it two-directional and interactive. Today even the mass media outlets are using interactive tools to reach out to the people and to ascertain truths.

Another important role of mass media, journalism in particular, has been connecting the rulers with the ruled. Mass media carried the messages of power to the people while bringing the plight of the masses to the attention of the rulers. This notion has also been challenged by social media, which provides a direct connection between leaders and their subjects.

In the United States, Twitter-savvy President Donald Trump speaks his mind through his tweets. India’s Modi is one of the most widely followed politicians on Twitter. In Nepal too, most of the prominent leaders have a presence on social networking sites. After his visit to Janakpur during the visit of his Indian counterpart Modi, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli tweeted in Maithili. His perceived motive was to connect with the people of Province 2 in particular who have been hostile to his policies in the past.

Social networking sites are even redefining the role of the opposition by effecting changes through new forms of protest. In the past, when the government hiked up prices, say of petroleum products, students protested unfailingly by burning tyres in front of their campuses. Burning tyres has become a rare sight today partly because of the prevalence of social media. In fact, it’s hard to remember when tyres were last burnt in Kathmandu as a form of protest. These days, when students or youths need to protest, they take to Facebook and Twitter first.

Whenever the government is taken to task for failing to complete repairs such as of the Bouddha and Thamel roads ahead of the rainy season, the usual public comment on social media has been something like, “Dear government, your Kathmandu rail plan can wait but please plug the potholes that make commuting a nightmare in the Capital.”

It is debatable whether the government’s stated plans to bring cross-border railways to Kathmandu and to sail ships up to the Nepali territory are technically feasible and economically viable, but the ruling NCP’s irritation at the public mockery of PM Oli’s dream projects was palpable when lawmaker Mahesh Basnet said that people making fun of the “panijahaj plan” when Bhaktapur was flooded could face action under the electronic transaction law. Perhaps it was insensitive to pass such comments when all the belongings of hundreds of families were lost to floods but it was also a way to vent public frustration at the current state of affairs. Government ministers are heard on television regularly that the communist government has not been in place long enough to cure all ills, but critics often point to misplaced priorities.

When the opposition Nepali Congress accuses the government of making totalitarian moves, it remains crucial for the government to allay the fears by tolerating dissent. Allowing plurality of views and freedom of expression is the hallmark of democracy. NC leader Pradeep Giri made a brilliant remark in parliament recently: “In autocracy, people are afraid of the government. In democracy, the government is afraid of the people.”

For the government to regain public confidence, it has to take people’s concerns, hardships and aspirations seriously. When there is an exchange of views, democracy thrives through debate and self-correction. In this day, there is arguably no better platform for social interaction than social networking sites on which the government can engage its people, discuss their problems and seek solutions.

The writer tweets

@GuragainMohan

Published: 21-07-2018 07:46

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