Gist of The Hindu: March 2017

Gist of The Hindu: March 2017

Well-oiled diplomacy

In nominating Rex Tillerson, Chief Executive of the oil and gas conglomerate ExxonMobil, to the post of Secretary of State, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has provided another glimpse into his world view and decision-making process. Similar to Mr. Trump, Mr. Tillerson has no formal experience in political office, yet brings impressive heft in terms of deal-making across 52 countries over six continents. On his watch, the stock market value of ExxonMobil, the U.S.'s largest oil company, soared to over $360 billion. Yet the vast global reach of Mr. Tillerson's work and the sheer complexities involved in drilling for oil, especially the sometimes messy geopolitics at play, have meant he has often been at odds with the agenda of the U.S. State Department. In Nigeria, for example, his company faced flak for lack of transparency in dealings with the government. Nowhere is the potential divergence from the hallowed traditions of Foggy Bottom's diplomatic norms more visible than in Mr. Tillerson's decade-plus engagement with Russia to secure oil drilling rights. Under him, ExxonMobil since 2006 signed a plethora of drilling agreements including through partnerships with the Russian oil behemoth Rosneft. Yet, as Mr. Tillerson's star rose in the eyes of the Kremlin, U.S. President Barack Obama's fell, especially since early 2014 when he authorised sanctions against certain Russian individuals and entities for violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Thus, reactions to Mr. Tillerson's nomination have been divided between relief, among those who would welcome the likely thaw in Washington-Moscow diplomatic ties, and alarm, of critics who fear that as in Mr. Trump's case, Mr. Tillerson may find it difficult to disentangle his personal and official interests. In his confirmation hearing in the Senate he will be grilled, in all likelihood by John McCain and his peers, on his views on whether Russian hackers had interfered in the presidential election, as the U.S. intelligence community suggests they did, and whether these hackers could still launch cyberattacks on U.S. targets. His answers will provide clues about how he might carry out his duties as America's top diplomat. They will also supply clarity on his apparent belief, contra-Trump, that human activity does cause climate change, necessitating mitigation and adaptation efforts. To India, the nomination of Mr. Tillerson, if successful, may smooth military cooperation with Moscow as Obama-era hostility towards Russia softens. ExxonMobil also has extensive oil business assets on Indian soil, so New Delhi may have reason to be sanguine about bilateral détente, especially in trade and investment terms.

Diminishing options before BCCI

Equivocation before the Supreme Court can be costly. Anurag Thakur, president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, may have learnt this bitter lesson after the Chief Justice of India found him prima facie guilty of contempt of court and perjury. The board's predicament is not only due to its reluctance to accept the reforms suggested by the court-appointed Justice Lodha Committee. It is also because of its president's ham-handed attempt to explain away his move to get the International Cricket Council to issue a letter to the effect that some judicial orders regarding the BCCI amounted to 'governmental interference'. Mr. Thakur allegedly approached ICC chairman Shashank Manohar in Dubai in August 2016 in connection with the court's July 18 order mandating that a nominee of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India should be on the BCCI's apex council. It is not surprising that the court took a dim view of the BCCI initially denying that such an attempt had been made to get the ICC involved. It was probably just as displeased with Mr. Thakur going on to file an affidavit that he had only wanted Mr. Manohar to give his opinion on the issue as a former BCCI president. Mr. Thakur would have been better off admitting what happened, given that Mr. Manohar has disclosed that the BCCI president had indeed asked him for such a letter.

Mr. Thakur being rendered liable for prosecution for perjury is not the only consequence; the current BCCI office-bearers may lose their control over the board. The Bench headed by the Chief Justice is already in a mood to appoint some observers, based on a suggestion by the Lodha Committee, to oversee the BCCI's affairs. The BCCI has allowed an impression to gain ground that its attitude towards reforms is one of defiance and obstruction. So far the cricket body has been maintaining that it cannot force its State-level affiliates to accept all the new norms. The BCCI could have avoided a direct confrontation by committing itself more plainly to abide by the court verdict. The BCCI's reputation as a responsible sports administrator is under strain not because of any shortcoming in its management of the cricketing aspects of the game, but its seeming intransigence in embracing reforms aimed at bringing about transparency in its functioning. Any order convicting the BCCI president for perjury or holding its top functionaries guilty of contempt of court would severely damage the institution. An apology from Mr. Thakur, and the BCCI's wholehearted acceptance of the Lodha Committee reforms, seem the only way out.

Vulnerable in cyberspace

An expansive cyberattack on critical information infrastructure in India - communications, banking technologies, healthcare services - may be currently under way. What's worse, many of these operations have likely attained their objective. If that sounds hyperbolic, sample the comments made to news outlets by a representative of the group 'Legion', which has claimed responsibility for hacking emails and Twitter accounts belonging to the Indian National Congress, the industrialist Vijay Mallya, and journalists Barkha Dutt and Ravish Kumar. Buried in their profanity-laced correspondence with The Washington Post and FactorDaily , this group has claimed access to "over 40,000 servers" in India, "encryption keys and certificates" used by some Indian banks, and confidential medical data housed in "servers of private hospital chains".

'Legion' claims it has no interest in selling confidential data because its members make enough money by selling "weaponised exploits". If the email and Twitter hacks have indeed been conducted by a group that trades in "zero-days" - software glitches that exist at the time of creation of an application, but are discovered by technical experts and sold to parent companies, rivals, governments or criminals - then these intrusions should be taken very seriously. Stuxnet, the cyber weapon developed jointly by the United States and Israel to slow down Iranian nuclear centrifuges, used a zero-day exploit that falsified digital certificates, allowing it to run in Windows operating systems. If Legion has gained access to, say, a 'Secure Socket Layer' (SSL) certificate that an Indian bank's website uses to validate its authenticity to a user's computer or mobile phone, the group could easily retrieve confidential login information and cause unmitigated financial loss.

The 'Legion' hacks expose the dire state of cybersecurity in India. If the country's digital assets are today vulnerable to espionage and disruptive attacks, there are institutional, economic and social factors fuelling their neglect. The Centre is yet to identify and implement measures to protect "critical information infrastructure" indispensable to the country's governance. The National Informatics Centre (NIC), which hosts the government's mail servers, has been compromised several times in the past: until a few months ago, its users did not rely on two-factor authentication (or 2FA, in which the user provides two means of identification) to access sensitive government communications. The welcome measure to appoint a National Cyber Security Coordinator in 2014 has not been supplemented by creating liaison officers in the States; the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) is woefully understaffed.

The private sector is equally culpable in its failure to report and respond to breaches in digital networks. Data made available by Interpol for 2015 suggest 1,11,083 security incidents were handled by CERT-In but less than 10 per cent of those were registered with law enforcement agencies. Electronic fraud is notoriously underreported in India, whether it is directed at the payment interface or the e-commerce website. There are neither voluntary, sector-specific standards for reporting data breaches nor industry backchannels for sharing confidential security information. Most Indian applications available on Android and iOS stores allow for automatic updates or patches, increasing the likelihood that an exploit or malware can be introduced without the user's knowledge.

Perhaps the most important factor is attitudinal. The continued perception among Indian elites that cybersecurity is "optional" is evident in that 'Legion' has successfully targeted highly visible politicians, journalists and industrialists. Partisan commentary has chosen either to speculate on the identity of perpetrators or celebrate the embarrassment of their political opponents. NIC email servers are often blamed for their poor security, but most Indian companies that rely on Gmail for official communication also do not make 2FA mandatory for its employees.

Cybersecurity in India is waved away as the remit of technical experts, while businesses and users believe their data can be protected through high-end devices or 'air-gapped' networks. However, most sophisticated cyberattacks have all involved a human element: Stuxnet needed the physical introduction of infected USB devices into Iran's nuclear facilities; the 2016 cyber-heist of $950 million from Bangladesh involved gullible (or complicit) bankers handing over SWIFT codes to hackers. Similarly, 'Legion' has not targeted first-generation Internet users but tech-savvy public figures who presumably use secure phones for communication. This episode underscores the difficulty in protecting digital networks if human involvement continues to be the weakest link in the chain.

The government's practiced apathy in the wake of cyberattacks has only encouraged their repetition. Post-demonetisation, the Centre has pushed the citizenry to go 'cashless', without building capacity and awareness on the security of devices or transactions. If anything, regulators have slid back on commitments needed from businesses to protect digital payments. The Reserve Bank of India's recent decision to waive 2FA for transactions less than Rs.2,000 treats each individual transaction as a self-contained unit, without acknowledging that devices once infected will also compromise higher-value payments. Frequent data breaches will steadily erode the confidence of Internet users and deter them from using digital gateways. For a government which has staked its future heavily on the success of the Digital India programme, this is an outcome it can ill afford.

The unmaking of Parliament

The Indian Parliament meets, the Indian Parliament ceases to meet, and there is nary an impact of these meetings/non-meetings on the democratic discourse in the country. Newspaper columns rue the waste of time and money, commentators complain about the clatter and ear-splitting clamour in Parliament, analysts regret that widening of the social base of the body has not resulted in meaningful legislation or responsible legislators, legal minds register the shift to law-making by ordinance, and most Indians find Parliament irrelevant to the needs of the day.

Why should they not find it so? The Opposition focusses on denigrating the government rather than engaging with policies, the government hardly bothers to reply, political theatrics replace calm, reflective and reasoned debate, and the Prime Minister prefers to speak directly to existing and potential voters. What Jawaharlal Nehru termed the 'majesty' of Parliament is insistently, systematically and repeatedly desecrated. Is not democracy also subverted in the process?

The paradox is that generalised loss of confidence in representative institutions has not led to disenchantment with democracy. Surveys show that Indians value democracy. They value democracy because this form of government has enabled them to realise the primordial desire of each human being to be treated as an equal, at least during election time. Over the years, we see the making of a body politic shaped by democratic imaginings, and struggles to attain equality and dignity. Elections are marked by high voter turnouts, voters exercise freedom of choice and elect and dismiss governments in often unpredictable ways.

The biography of India's democracy validates confidence in the maturity of the political public. The Motilal Nehru Constitutional Draft recommended adult suffrage for both men and women as far back as 1928, the very year women finally got the vote in England. "We," held the report, "attach no weight to the objections based on the prevailing illiteracy of the masses and their lack of political experience… Political experience can only be acquired by an active participation in political institutions and does not entirely depend on literacy. There should be equal opportunities available to all to acquire this experience." The belief, which was reiterated in the Constituent Assembly, underscored the competence of ordinary women and men to participate in political deliberations. Simply put, politics is too important an activity to be left to professional politicians.

In eighteenth century France, the great defender of direct democracy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote that sovereignty "lies essentially in the general will, and will does not admit of representation: it is either the same or the other; there is no intermediate possibility". But direct democracy can hardly be practised in large and complex societies. In market-oriented societies, dominated as they are by the imperative of 'need satisfaction', citizens cannot afford to put aside the time and energy-consuming task of earning their daily bread, and participate whole-time in an activity called politics. Besides modern citizens, unlike ancient Athenians, value and guard their personal spaces, their vocation, their interests, their social life, and their privacy. For these reasons and more, democracy requires a third set of political agents to mediate between the first two sets: the citizen and the state. This is the representative.

Civil society in India is inhabited by a large number of organisations, the media, social associations, neighbourhood groups, all kinds of professional lobbies, non-governmental and non-profit organisations, philanthropic bodies, social and political movements, and trade unions. Each of them claims to represent the interests of their members. Political representatives, however, possess three advantages over other modes of representation. One, they represent all the members of a territorially delimited constituency, as opposed to say trade unions. Two, political representatives are accountable to their constituents via the route of election. And three, the party representative acquires legitimacy by the fact that she has been elected by the people whose interests she is charged with representing and furthering. Representative democracy is not perfect, it is flawed, but it is the only form of democracy that enables a relationship between the citizen and the state, provided our representatives do what they are supposed to be doing in Parliament.

Parliament makes laws, ensures accountability of the government, and considers and scrutinises legislation through the committee system. But above all, Parliament provides a forum and establishes procedures for reflection on, and critical engagement with, what has been done, and what needs to be done in the light of popular expectations. Representatives are expected to 'stand in' for their constituents, even as they keep in mind that they are in Parliament to promote the public good, and not for advancing petty, grasping projects.

This is the job of representatives, the reason for which they have been elected, the source of their power and privilege, the rationale for their very existence. This is no small matter we are discussing, says Socrates in Plato's Republic , we are discussing how we should live. The deliberative aspect of Parliament is no small matter, nor is it just another function of the body. Deliberation, by way of representation of different points of view, is an indispensable component of how we, as a collective, should live. For policies generated by the parliamentary process establish a framework for the transaction of all manners of projects in different settings.

If India wishes to hold on to her democratic credentials, parliamentarians must recognise that the task of representing the opinions, interests and needs of citizens is their paramount responsibility. Nehru, in a famous speech he made in the Lok Sabha on March 28, 1957, had said that historians will not pay much attention to the time expended on speeches, or the number of questions asked and answered in Parliament. They will be interested in the deeper things that go into the making of a nation. There is no higher responsibility than to be a member of this sovereign body responsible for the fate of vast numbers of human beings. "Whether we are worthy of it or not is another matter." Our Parliamentarians have proved unworthy of the great responsibility bestowed on them. This is the political tragedy of our democracy.

This is Only Sample Material, To Get Full Materials Buy The Gist 1 Year Subscription - "Only PDF" Click Here

Click Here to Download More Free Sample Material 

<< Go Back To Main Page

Courtesy: The Hindu