Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, a Biju Janta Dal MP from Orissa, was one of the handful of politicians who opposed the draconian Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000.
With the Supreme Court declaring Section 66A, which allowed authorities to arrest individuals on the basis of comments posted on the internet, unconstitutional, that battle is won. However, Panda would have liked it to happen via Parliament rather than the judiciary. But the larger question remains, are we fundamentally a society that is open or one that wants to manage and sometimes muzzle free speech? And what is to prevent the same elements that created Section 66, rearing their head again?
BOOM Live’s Govindraj Ethiraj caught up with Mr. Panda at the sidelines of The Growth Net, a conference that brought together business and academia in Delhi last week.
Ethiraj: Let me start by asking you for a 10-month report card on the NDA government. The hits and misses?
Think about this for moment, the three economic bills that were passed within the last ten days, were the most significant economic legislation in a decade. In the past decade, we have had a lot of social legislation but no significant economic legislation. People don’t realise the trench warfare that has gone on behind-the-scenes behind the Parliament to make this possible.
Panda: Let us recap on three broad areas in which this government has worked. Clearly, right at the beginning, the Prime Minister chose to invest his political capital on foreign policy. By most accounts, I think he has done a fantastic job in re-establishing India as a hot destination for investment, re-establishing India’s image as an emerging economic super power, and his own image as a global statesman.
The second has to do with domestic economy, which a lot of people thought he would start with. But there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work, and starting from the end of the last calendar year, with the ordinances that were issued and the economic bills that have been passed; I think it is a very significant move. Think about this for moment, the three economic bills that were passed within the last ten days, were the most significant economic legislation in a decade.
In the past decade, we have had a lot of social legislation but no significant economic legislation. People don’t realise the trench warfare that has gone on behind-the-scenes behind the Parliament to make this possible.
On the third issue, which is regarding social issues, the Prime Minister has started speaking up on personal freedom, on religious freedom, on the constitutional guarantees to every citizen including minorities. Perhaps, you could argue that he should have started speaking out on this before, but you know there are certain things as a bandwidth that a person or a government or a team can handle. As long as they can make sure that the message goes out loud and clear, I think they are on the good track.
A message is going out – that investment will not be harassed and business will not be treated shabbily. This is the first government where a cabinet minister has come out and said being pro-business is not necessarily anti-poor.
Ethiraj: So you spend a lot of time in your constituency in Orissa, we have seen the new bill for land acquisition. Are you getting a sense that people are comfortable with things they are being presented?
Panda: The reality is this – people in India, particularly those who have lost lands, have deep suspicion about how their land has been acquired.
In Orissa and other parts of India, you have claims going back to the 1950s, when lands were acquired for dams and steel plants and this never got proper compensation. So people started suspecting, they suspect the process of land acquisition and eminent domain was misused in the past. So now also, there is that apprehension, there is that suspicion.
I think more needs to be done to communicate that the compensation aspect is not being changed at all. The scope of eminent domain is now being narrowed down to the purely public projects, particularly the linear projects like railways and highways and irrigation investment, which do not display large numbers of people. But, this is a work in progress.
You cannot assume that people will just accept it even if it is a good idea. It has to be sold to people.
Ethiraj: So if you were to now look ahead, with the government’s larger focus on Make in India, absorbing young people coming into the work force, with land being the answer to some of the problems, is this all adding up?
Panda: I would put it this way – clearly, I think a corner has been turned. As I said, there has been most significant economic legislation in a decade, inflation has been low, oil prices are low. But also a message is going out – that investment will not be harassed and business will not be treated shabbily. This is the first government where a cabinet minister has come out and said being pro-business is not necessarily anti-poor.
This is significant messaging. Now, the question remains to be answered whether these reforms will be sustained or not. Even if not much more happens, I think enough has happened that this turn around will go on for a while. But unless we make further reforms, further down the road, it is going to get difficult. Land is crucial, but it is not the only thing.
You have to look at the labour laws, the ease of doing business, the Inspector Raj which still harasses small entrepreneurs, SMEs, big companies – all of this has to change. So, I would not like to say that any one thing will hold up the economy, but unless there is action on several fronts, including hopefully on the land fronts, yes, I think we will face bottle necks.
Ethiraj: So, what is the different way to look at it? You have argued about looking at the U.S. and China, two different examples, one a well-functioning democracy and the other a communist country.
Panda: I used the U.S. and the China example only to show that they both are extremes of the political spectrum, there is a certain global norm and we are an outlier. In the past, eminent domain has misused in India. But the fact remains, we need to discuss what is truly public purpose. Are railways, national high ways public purpose? This has to be weighed against the consent of people whose lands are being lost.
We have to resolve the issue of should people have a veto and what percentage of people should have a veto, if at all? Most importantly, what is the compensation? I think if we can instill confidence in people that land acquisition will be only for the truly, eminent domain type of approaches for national purposes, defence installations.
I think the consent issue can be overcome if the confidence is built among people that the compensation is not only going to be adequate but worthwhile, and it is not just a cash compensation, perhaps there can be some scope of assured jobs and assured other facilities.
We are a work in progress. I think India’s ethos – forget about our politics, forget about our legislation – I think India’s ethos is liberal. Even when you talk to people & tell them, should a cartoonist be arrested? Most people will say no. I feel and sense the liberal ethos which is shocked at the kind of legal restrictions that we have on free speech and free conduct.
Ethiraj: Let’s come to the social report card on which this government’s record perhaps is not so good. For instance, it has upset at least two communities for slightly different reasons. You were campaigning on Section 66, arguing for freedom of expression. Somewhere it fits into the larger scheme of things, on the social front, doesn’t it?
Panda: I would like to see this in the larger periscope because Section 66 or the misuse of sedition law was there even in the previous government which was avowedly more liberal; the reality is that though we are into the 21st century, many of our laws are stuck in the nineteenth century.
That needs to be addressed, fortunately the courts are stepping in, the Supreme Court has struck down 66A but I wish we had done it in Parliament. We were three of us, opposing this in Parliament but yet again we have yielded ground for the courts to step in and do what is really our job.
Similarly, the misuses of the sedition law, only last week the Bombay High Court stepped in and ruled against it so that the cartoonist was acquitted. The reality is, the IT act passed in Parliament in a din.
It was never discussed, and that was part of the problem, more than any governmental attitude or party attitude. I think the large number of legislators never understood the nuances. They never distinguished that there is a legitimate interest to regulate online content when it goes to the extent of threatening violence against someone.
But that should be distinguished from somebody expressing an opinion. So you can have anti-stalking laws, and you can have laws against somebody threatening someone to murder somebody, online or offline, but you cannot limit the freedom of expression that a person has to criticise the government or the party leaders or criticize political opinions, to criticise your dress sense. These are freedom of speech that are guaranteed by our government.
The new generation of Indians, which is mostly very young, people that are educated and there are more people that have access to information from all sides. There are more people that are being pulled up out of poverty. I think these are good things.
Ethiraj: So, if I were to try and wrap this up as a larger, social universe, some of which is legacy as you pointed out, some of which is current, where do we stand?
Panda: Well, like I said we are a work in progress. I think India’s ethos – forget about our politics, forget about our legislation – I think India’s ethos is liberal. Even when you talk to people & tell them, should a cartoonist be arrested? Most people will say no.
Ethiraj: Are you sure about that?
Panda: I travel in the hinterland of India. I meet thousands of people every week, personally. And, I feel and sense the liberal ethos which is shocked at the kind of legal restrictions that we have on free speech and free conduct.
Ethiraj: But you are saying that we are a more liberal thinking society, as evidenced by the people you meet?
Panda: My belief is that Indians, by and large, are liberal at heart. Sometimes, an issue can be a little confusing and they need to understand that better because if this overlap between threatening behaviour and expressing opinion, which may or may not be offensive, that distinction is sometimes not understood.
So, it may feel as if people are not liberal but if you explain the nuances, and have a discussion with people, more often than not, my experience is that people are able to distinguish between opinion and threats.
Ethiraj: So, you are also saying we are, in a way, heading to a more socially-inclusive country? As opposed to the otherwise, which a lot of people believe is the case?
Panda: I think it is linked to the levels of literacy. I think it is linked to the standard of living. I think it is linked to the degree of information that we have without restriction. The new generation of Indians, which is mostly very young, is better off on all three fronts than earlier generations. There are more people that are educated and there are more people that have access to information from all sides. There are more people that are being pulled up out of poverty. I think these are good things.
Ethiraj: You said that the whole section 66A was, in some ways, the result of a drafting oversight, error, adventurism compounded by the fact that legislators didn’t pay sufficient attention when they should have done it. Would you worry that there is a residue of this still in the minds of those who want to control, regulate and punish, which perhaps has not been dealt with and should be dealt with?
Panda: Well, I think yes, but it has to do with the nature of our politics. I think our politics has become somewhat polarized and there is lot of instinctive, obstructionist behaviour between people who don’t agree politically, whereas we should be talking about the principles of the issue.
Yes, I think there are remnants of that. I don’t think it is limited to one government or party. As I said, the more sunlight that you shine on these issues, the better it is for the country.