First Of Its Kind’ Technology Hub Govt’s straight-faced lie New grid of governance

It’s no secret that San Francisco hearts Obama.

 

The president breezed through town on Thursday for a series of fundraising events, including a sold-out concert featuring Chris Cornell at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium and a $38,500-a-plate dinner at a private home. Despite the inevitable gaggle of protesters, the city embraced its guy with open arms (and a swift pinch to the buttocks, if you’re one particular woman in Chinatown).

And Obama hearts San Francisco back. So much, in fact, that he’s making presidential campaign history here. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Team Obama opened a first-of-its-kind Technology Field Office here last week.

Instead of typical campaign field office activities, like door-to-door canvassing or phone banking, the technology hub will be focused on developing new online strategies, such as improvements to the official Obama website.

“We learned from 2008 that using the talents and skills of our supporters was a key to building the most effective organization,” said Obama campaign deputy press secretary Katie Hogan told the Chronicle. “We’re taking the next step by providing tools and space for supporters in the technology community to help the campaign extend our current tools like BarackObama.com and our mobile applications.”

Though the office only employs one paid staffer at the moment, the campaign is actively recruiting tech-savvy volunteers to work from the space.

No word yet on where the space itself is located, but CBS News suspects SoMa’s South Park community, which is home to other local tech powerhouses, like Twitter and Instagram.

Obama is widely credited for his successful use of social media to rally his supporters during his 2008 campaign. And it looks like 2012 will be no different: in addition to San Francisco’s technology field office, the president has already created an Instagram account and released his campaign playlist on Spotify.

The government’s audacity in dealing with anything constitutional has stopped surprising observers. The propensity to brazen it out seems to be getting worse, but even by its own dismal standards, the attempts it is making to make the Election Commission its doormat is abominable.

All are aware of how the nation’s law minister, no less, openly challenged the EC while campaigning for his wife in UP. He clearly forgot that he, besides being the husband of a candidate, was also a ‘responsible’ minister. A lot has already been written about the episode and how EC should have acted. While several, including I, thought the commission”s reaction was meek, several luminaries I met pointed out that the EC did right by not postponing the elections, for it would have harmed others more than the perpetrator. While that is another debate altogether, this piece is only about the government’s attempt to show mock sympathy for the EC and helping it by making the ‘model code of conduct’ statutory.

Only to an idiot would it seem like strengthening the poll panel. The beauty of the code has been that it is more ‘moral’ than ‘model’ and even the courts, including the Supreme Court, have ruled that it needs to be followed and that the EC’s word is to be the final word on issues concerning the code. And while there have been attempts from time to time to interpret it differently, it has by and large been followed, with all parties generally respecting this ‘lakshman rekha’, as the former Central Vigilance Commissioner N Vittal put it.

The solution is for the parties themselves to introspect and see what is good for our democracy and stop violating or misinterpreting it for their vested interests. Making it statutory is surely not the solution. Imagine every time the code is violated and it lands up in courts where it languishes for a long time. This would mean the violator would happily enjoy everything, including a win perhaps, even as all wait for the court to deliver its verdict. The point, therefore, is how can making it statutory help anyone except those who want to weaken the body.

There have also been arguments that the code is anti-development. This too is a specious argument. Elections are conducted towards the end of the elected term of any government. The code comes into effect only during the 2-3 month period at that time. Are we trying to say that no development work takes place for 95 per cent of the term and all of it would have happened during the last three months that the EC is trying to stop? This is absurd. For, the truth is that the code has NO impact on ongoing schemes and also on schemes that have a uniform impact on all parties. To top it all, since the EC gets inundated with requests if this or that  is clear of the code or not, there apparently is even a direction from the EC to the cabinet secretary that there are set norms and as long as they are followed, it doesn’t even need to be brought to its notice. The only thing that the code bars are promises that have the potential to induce voters. Since there has to be a level playing field, how can anyone have a disagreement with that?

But no, the government, in the garb of making the EC stronger, wants to defang the body that is credited with conducting among the best elections in the world. Although one top honcho after the other of the government denied yesterday that there was any move to weaken the body and that making the code statutory was ‘not being discussed’, it stood exposed when media got hold of the agenda for today’s (February 22, 2012) Group of Ministers meeting where one of the points for discussion says: The chairman was also of the view that ‘Code of Conduct’ was one of the biggest excuses to stall development projects, and thus agreed with the request of the law minister to flag this issue and its inclusion in the agenda papers. It was also suggested that the Legislative Department may also look into the aspects where executive instructions of the Election Commission of India were required to be given statutory shape. Accordingly, Secretary, Legislative Department has been requested to make a presentation before the GoM on the progress made in the matter

As discussed earlier, this argument is completely bogus, and even seems motivated since it comes from the nation’s law minister, who, all know by now, has an axe to grind against the EC. But there are learned, and wise, members in the GoM. I am sure they can see through this. Also, as I said in a previous post, even the common man is now seeing through this. The common man also notices those who pretend to be the nation’s well-wishers but are actually working to undermine the very bodies that strengthen our democracy. In their own interest these ‘top honchos’ should realise their folly and back off!

Want to help out in the new campaign office? Email techvolunteers@barackobama.com.

As campaigning in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election peaks, the electorate of India’s most powerful civic body – the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) – fired a warning shot across the bow of all political parties last week. The Congress-NCP alliance received a sharp rebuff while the Shiv Sena-BJP was denied an absolute majority. The message: govern or go.

When parliament reconvenes for the Budget session next month, no further time should be lost in finalising governance legislation that cuts a clean swathe across electoral, judicial, police and political reforms. The parties that obstruct the creation of this new architecture of good governance could lose further ground in both state assembly and general elections.

A comprehensive grid of governance should have five integrated pivots: the Election Commission (EC); the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG); the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI); the National Judicial Commission (NJC); and the Lokpal. Two of the five – the EC and CAG – are already constitutional bodies but need more teeth. One – the NJC – is only a proposal but forms a key part of our new integrated governance grid. The fourth – the CBI, set up under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946 – requires reformist attention. And the last – the Lokpal – is in need of urgent resuscitation.

Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi announced recently that the EC plans to introduce three new regulations. First, debarring candidates facing serious criminal charges from contesting elections by amending the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Second, auditing the accounts of all registered political parties on a concurrent basis through CAG and other third-party auditors to check the use of black money both during and after elections. Third, ensuring transparent inner-party democracy by making annual elections mandatory for office bearers at all levels and imposing tenure limits on political party presidents to loosen the feudal grip of family control.

The second pivot in our governance grid is CAG. Under a strong leader like Vinod Rai, the institution, set up under Article 123 of the Constitution in 1950, has played a crucial role in uncovering a raft of recent scams. CAG’s remit goes beyond financial audit. Its mandate includes a “performance” audit of financial transactions: scrutinizing ministries, government departments, states and PSUs but without impinging on the executive prerogative of policy-making. CAG, along with the rest of our governance architecture, would play a key role in providing checks and balances to the other parts of the grid, including the Lokpal.

The third pivot is the CBI. In a seven-directive order delivered in September 2006, the Supreme Court laid down a comprehensive structure for police autonomy. As the central investigative force set up under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946, the CBI’s autonomy should follow as a natural corollary to the 2006 Supreme Court order. That order has not yet been complied with by either the Centre or the states and a contempt petition against non-compliance is pending before the Supreme Court. Would an independent CBI be an all-powerful, unaccountable force as critics of its autonomy claim? No. An independent CBI would be accountable to both the Lokpal bench – which would exercise superintendence, including, crucially, over investigation, administration and finance — and a special 20-member parliamentary committee.

That brings us to the fourth pivot of our governance grid – the Lokpal. The government’s Lokpal bill is weak; the Jan Lokpal draft is top-heavy. Building a strong but accountable 9-member Lokpal bench needs a new integrated approach when parliament reconvenes for the Budget session in March. The Lokpal bench selection panel should be free of both government and opposition representation. It should ideally comprise five independent institutional heads: the Chief Election Commissioner, the CBI director, the Chief Justice of India, the CAG and the chairman of the new National Judicial Commission (NJC). The Lokpal must have superintendence over an independent CBI’s investigative wing dealing with corruption cases of public servants. Since the CBI director would be one of the five institutional heads on the Lokpal selection panel, this arrangement would provide an effective element of counter-checks and balances within the overall governance grid.

The Lokpal bench would be further accountable in five ways. First, through an internal complaints redressal authority; second, via an annual performance and financial audit by CAG; third, through a Lokpal appellate bench; fourth, from overall jurisdiction of the Lokpal bench by the High Courts and the Supreme Court; and fifth, through a special parliamentary committee.

The parliamentary committee could comprise 20 MPs. Of these, eight (40%) would be nominated by the coalition government and 12 MPs (60%) by opposition parties – irrespective of the relative parliamentary strengths of the treasury and opposition benches. This mechanism is devised to ensure that the special parliamentary committee is not subservient to the government of the day and exercises bipartisan superintendence over both the Lokpal bench and the CBI.

The fifth and final pivot – the NJC – legislated under a revamped Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, would complete the new governance architecture. The chairman of the NJC would exercise judicial oversight on the Lokpal by serving on the five-member Lokpal selection panel. The NJC would have an uncompromising mandate to deal with corruption in the higher judiciary and thus close the circle of inter-institutional checks and balances.

 

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