Dialogue  July-September,  2012, Volume 14 No.1

Digital Democracy: Gandhi with Satellites

Ravindra K.S. Choudhary

I. Introduction:

Citizenry today all over the globe is more or less disenchanted with political representatives and disilusioned with the patterns of political participation that are behind the time. But people at once marvel hopefully at the magical powers of digital technologies. The global reach, instantaneous speed, unlimited information and interactive capacities of digital technologies have broadened the horizons of civic engagement to an enormous extent. The optimists claim that the most advanced technology available to humans today will facilitate a new era of direct democracy characterized by widespread participation of ordinary citizen in democratic discourse and decision-making. This complex phenomena of the postindustrial Information Society is called ‘Digital Democracy.’1

Some enthusiasts are even of the view that this development actually represents ‘a shift from depending on representatives to representing ourselves.’2 Pippa Norris puts this view well:

Enthusiasts often see information technology as a way to bypass the limitations of representative democracy, allowing further participation in direct democracy and public deliberation through electronic town hall meetings, online discussion lists, bulletin boards, newsgroups, and community networks, as well as protest activities, direct action campaigns, and civil disobedience coordinated via the Internet.3

II. In Between the Two Extremes:

An era of semi-direct democracy is in the offing indeed! Experts and enthusiasts have advanced several theories of digital democracy as well. It is important, however, to note that there may be two extreme standpoints in this connection, and that either position is unacceptable. Both of them are equally detrimental to understanding the confluence of digital technology and democratization in the right perspective. The two extreme standpoints are:

a) On the one hand, there is the Digital Utopia that everything will change as direct democracy comes to replace representative governance and bureaucratic juggernaut. Such is the view mostly held by younger generation who are more disillusioned with older forms of civic engagement. This sort of exaggerated hopes that a particular technology can totally transform the society have not been uncommon in history and the tendency has been dubbed ‘technoromanticism.’4

b) On the other side, there are Cyber Skeptics who hold that nothing will change as the digital world merely replicates the politics-as-usual. They thus believe that digital technology will make little difference in the realpolitik. Pessimists even believe that due to the vested interests of dominant players and also due to the prevailing digital divide the technologies will fail to transform the existing patterns of democratic participation.

In between the two extreme positions lies our contention. We contend that digital technologies have great potentials to strengthen democratization through decentralization. They allow the public to become more knowledgeable about issues of common concerns and more articulate in expressing their views.

The Internet for instance, forms an open forum for social and political activists to play a proactive role in public affairs. The world has just experienced a number of mass movements, violent as well as peaceful. Though they were driven by deeper passions, the Internet played vital role in facilitating their organization and mobilization. In the recent upsurge in Egypt, which ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the technology is claimed to played a prominent have role in mobilizing the popular movement. The internet can also be a potent tool to facilitate opportunities for direct democracy such as electronic voting for referenda and elections.5

In fact, ‘civic engagement’ has been understood as an umbrella concept that includes three distinct dimensions:

1. Political knowledge (what people know about the public affairs)

2. Political trust (the public’s orientation of support for the political system and its players)

3. Political participation (Conventional and non-conventional
activities designed to influence government and the decision-
making process).

In recent past, digital technologies have played crucial role in all these dimensions. Needless to say, the future too belongs, by and large, to such technologies.

III. Gandhi with Satellites:

The convergence of computers and satellites has revolutionized our life and the world leading to a transformation of our Weltanschauung altogether. The world-view thus emerged calls for politics and governance that are simpler, faster, more effective, yet more democratic and transparent than conventional ones.

What is so striking in the very midst of change and decay is that a new technological civilization is emerging. Moreover, by astonishing contrast to classical industrialism, the post-industrial Information Society turns out to have many features reminiscent of the Gandhian vision, e.g.

- Decentralization of workplace
- Decision division
- Scale appropriation
- Indigenous developmental strategies
- Environmental care
- Sensibility towards local culture
- Inclusion of marginalized people.

All these suggest that the large-scale industrialization and ensuing rapid urbanization under a powerful national government do not constitute the only path to progress. Neither is it impossible for an underdeveloped country to harness the advantages of digital revolution. Digital technologies are well within reach without first passing through the stage of large-scale industrialization.

Moreover, strikingly in the Gandhian spirit, ‘the Internet provides a distinctive structure of opportunities that has the potential to revive civic engagement, especially for many peripheral groups currently marginalized from mainstream politics.’7 The main matter of concern in this connection is the present patterns of unequal technological access that has to be overcome urgently.

The general trend shows that the diffusion of digital technology depends upon economic development. For, ours is an age of knowledge economy that is dependent on widespread computer literacy supported by a large pool of highly paid professionals.

Thus a deeper synthesis between the two paths – the Digital technology and the Gandhian vision of village republics – has now to be achieved. This kind of synthesis requires a ‘total transformation of society’. Many indeed believe that ‘just such a transformation is now under way, carrying us towards a radical new synthesis: Gandhi, in short, with satellites.’8

IV. Difficulties with the Digital Paradigm:

In spite of all the rosy scenarios, the difficulties with digital revolution are many. Some of the problems deserve to be discussed here.

The digital revolution is still far away from the Gandhian culture of the heart. Despite all their smartness, e-governance and digital discourse offer no substitute for traditional forms of face -to-face civic engagement.

Insofar as matters of value are concerned, the industrial and the postindustrial civilization are of a piece. The worst feature of Western Civilization, according to Gandhi, is that it ‘takes note neither of morality nor of religion.’9 The digital revolution too does not take religion and morality into account. But politics in the Gandhian way must be based upon these perennial sources of value.

In Gandhian way, no civilization can be ‘true civilization’ without firmly founded upon the basic principles of Truth (Satya), Simplicity of lifestyle leading to non-possession (Aparigraha) and an integration of the Temporal and the Spiritual (Samanvyaya).10 But the digital revolution, which constitutes the core of post-industrial civilization, promotes only the typical pragmatic values embedded in American culture. It reflects the values of free market, entrepreneurial individualism and faith in Nasdaq.

Further, Decentralization through digital technologies is no guarantee of actual democracy. It is quite possible that the whole scheme of things may turn into a sort of pseudo-decentralization in favor of the traditional centralizers. And this is actually what is, by and large, going on nowadays. It has often been noticed that despite its immense potentials the digital world in practice tends to reflect the politics-as-usual with the same players along with their programs and propaganda.

The global divide in access to digital technologies is substantial and this technological disparity has been a matter of concern for cyber optimists as well. The dominant and established interest groups are likely to be much more benefitted due to the prevailing digital divide. It may further marginalize the underprivileged and digital have-nots. This aspect poses a serious problem as it may further deepen the divide between the haves and have-nots based technological resources and capabilities.

In sum: the real issue behind all this development is not of the character of ‘either/or’. It is not really a question of direct democracy versus indirect one; we are not faced with a decisive choice between representing ourselves and represented by others. Rather, the point is, that in the wake of the digital revolution, "there are highly creative, as yet underutilized, ways to combine direct citizen participation with ‘representation’ in a new system of semi-direct democracy."11


1. B. N. Hague and B. D. Loader, Digital Democracy: Discourse and Decision-making in the Information Age, Routledge, London, 1999, p. 8.
2. A. Toffler, The Third Wave, Bantam Books, NY, 1981, p. 427.
3. P. Norris, Digital Divide, Cambridge University Press, NY, 2001, pp. 235-36.
4. See, R. Coyne, Technoromanticism:Digital Narrative, Holism and the Romance of the Real, The MIT Press, Cambridge, M.A., 1999.
5. See, I. Budge, The New Challenges of Direct Democracy, Polity Press, Oxford, 1996.
6. P. Norris, op.cit., p. 217.
7. Ibid.
8. A. Toffler, op.cit., p. 344.
9. M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, p. 20.
10. Ravindra K.S. Choudhary, Wittgensteinian Philosophy and Advaita Vedanta: A Survey of the Parallels, D.K. Printworld, N. Delhi, 2007, p. 165.
11. A. Toffler, op.cit., p.430.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati