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The disappearance of the middle ground

By Anupam Manur (@anupammanur)

The end result of an acrid political climate, as witnessed in the US and India, could be one of highly populated extremes and a disappearing middle-ground.


Dear America,

Allow me the liberty to predict what will happen over the next few years. This is not another fear-mongering doomsday scenario painting exercise about the potential consequences of a Trump Presidency. I’ll leave that to the experts; experts, who have gotten all their predictions wrong until now. You are in a lot of trouble, not because of what Trump will do or not do, but because of the way you will react to his every move.

If you thought the election campaign trail saw the heights of polarisation, bigotry and racism in your society, then, you have another thing coming. Things are only going to get more divisive from now on. There will be an exponential increase in nationalistic fervour. Public discourse will worsen over the next few years to the point that sensible people will be forced to retire out of sheer frustration and saturation. This is the adverse selection problem in public discourse. If there is a higher proportion of lemons in the market, and the average consumer cannot differentiate between the lemon and the peach, the peaches get crowded out.

Every move by your next President will receive disproportionate attention and reactions. Yes, in a democracy, the citizens have to provide the vigil, but this will take an extreme turn, and perhaps a turn for the worse. The vigil will turn into an obsession, which will saturate public attention. The supporters and detractors will fight out every move, not based on the merits or demerits of the move, but based on the position they took on the day of the election. Supporters will cheer every move and defend it with all their might, irrespective of whether there exists any merits to it. Even terrible moves that might actually induce harm in these stakeholders will find staunch supporters. The supporters might even be willing to endure the negative effects in order to defend their position.

Detractors, on the other hand, will assume that it is their moral obligation to oppose everything. Let us assume that Trump does something reasonable in his tenure, which can be welfare enhancing to Americans, like perhaps fixing the fragile Obamacare. Regardless, the detractors will vilify him, make highly polemical arguments, and go to great lengths to find faults, instead of nuanced debates on how it can be improved. Reasonability and sensibility will disappear from public discourse and so will balanced objectivity. The residue will be a highly charged, hyper-partisan platform for dogmatic exchanges. To make things worse, your political representatives will also be highly divided and it would be reasonable to expect the Congress and the Senate to be in a continuous gridlock for the next few years. Sure, some legislations may get passed, but most of it will have to endure an extremely rough path.

This black hole of negativity will suck in everything in its sight. Previously sane commentators will start taking positions and will stick to it, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Very few will be exempt from this. The middle ground will rapidly vanish and the extremes will start getting populated. There is perhaps some merit in apathy and indecisiveness among citizens, but the time for that has gone. Everyone has a strong opinion and of course, it is the right opinion. The media houses will not be spared either from the hyper-partisan discourse. An independent and impartial media will be left wanting.

I speak from experience. This is what has happened to public discourse in India since the elections in 2014. I am not trying to draw any parallels between our two elected representatives nor our political parties or governments. There is just an overwhelming similarity in the acrid political climate of our countries and the end result could be one of highly populated extremes and a disappearing middle-ground.

Anupam Manur is a Policy Analyst at the Takshashila Institution


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Kanhaiya Kumar and blockchain

In a society with severe trust deficit technology can help bridge the gap.


There have been many victims in the JNU incident but none suffered greater damage than the credibility of the media, especially the TV reportage. Video journalism was on the rise throughout the last decade but with the proliferation of smart phones this took a different turn altogether. Everyone can be a reporter now and not just write but present video proof in real time. The Kanhaiya Kumar case brought out another aspect of the video technology out in the open for everyone to see, that it can doctored. And doctored easily. We can expect this drama to go on for a while. Now that some videos have been found out to be fake, people will deny that they were aired. They will try to create obfuscation about the timing and the exact content of the videos. The hope is that you create so much confusion that people stop believing anything. But what if you had a very simple and tamper-proof way of checking the authenticity of the video or any other media?


Enter blockchain. Blockchain is the technology behind the crypto-currency bitcoin. One of its fundamental properties is that it de-centralizes trust. You do not need to trust a central authority to do transactions or maintain records. Another property is that the history cannot be altered. Once a transaction is recorded in what is known as the distributed ledger then it cannot be tampered with. What it needs is a lot of individuals to run nodes (a software) on their own computers. The more people run the nodes, the more secure and fool-proof the system becomes. You can imagine it as a tweet which cannot be deleted.

It makes sense to put such videos on the blockchain. Once they are there no one can dispute or create confusion about the timing or exact contents of the videos. This is greatly help with quick resolution of facts instead of getting wound-up in endless hours of deciphering who said what. The best thing is that everyone can participate in the maintenance of the network and no one person or organization is responsible for it. There are many technical details that need to be figured out – like using the SHA1 hash of the video might be good enough, an incentive structure for running the nodes, etc.

Ultimately, no technology can help if there is no social capital for its adoption. But the blockchain technology is tailor-made to work in situations where there is a trust deficit. And the current Indian media qualifies.

Siddarth Gore is a Research Scholar at the Takshashila Institution and he tweets @siddhya

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To be seen and not heard

Why the lack of children’s voices in the debate about the recent Amendment to the Child Labour Act is a matter of concern

Working Children

This week witnessed a lot of debate around the Amendment to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 (“the Act”). The amendment has brought the Act in line with the Article 21A of the Constitution and the Right to Education Act. The amendment has made changes to the age of employment for children, the kinds of employment they can be hired for and the penalties for violation of the Act. However, what is conspicuously missing from the current debate (particularly in the media) are the opinions of children, especially of working children. This is extremely worrying, as the children who are at the receiving end of this Amendment do not have a voice to set the public discourse.

The original Act and the recent Amendment both acknowledge that children can (and do) perform work that is economically productive. However, it remains doubtful that children, working or otherwise, were systematically consulted when passing the Amendment and they were more likely treated as passive agents. It would be extremely unfortunate if indeed, working children had not been involved in the framing of the Amendment or any subsequent analysis of its impact as such a law would undoubtedly have a great bearing upon the lives of these children.  Not only would it be high-handed, it would amount to an utter disregard of the ability of children to think rationally and formulate opinions on decisions that affect them. This could not be further from the truth as working children have demonstrated that they can participate effectively in public decision making and voice their opinions with courage.

India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children (UNCRC), an international treaty that sets out the civil, political, social, and economic rights of children. Article 11 of the UNCRC acknowledges that children’s relationships with adults need to move beyond children receiving protection and provision of services to also participating in decision-making in all matters that affect them. Given that India has signed the treaty, it can be assumed that the country subscribes (at least theoretically) to the view that children are not just to be seen but also to be heard.

Stakeholder analysis and involvement is commonly advocated as a tool for effective policy planning, particularly for vulnerable populations. It is only logical to first understand the needs and concerns of the target population before framing a policy that will address them. While other tools like economical analyses or scientific studies also have value, it is imperative to also seek the opinions of the people being affected. Otherwise, there is the imminent risk of providing solutions that fail to address all the concerns of the target population and may tackle a problem that the they were actually indifferent towards. Furthermore, by not being involved in the policy making process, it is quite possible that these people will not fully understand their rights and entitlements under the new policy.

The media has traditionally helped policy makers in this regard by providing a forum to spread awareness about new policies. But the media is much more than a mere mouthpiece for the government. Often described as the fourth pillar of governance after the executive, judiciary and legislature, the media can actually keep a check on all the other three. It ostensibly does this by providing enough data and analyses to the public for them to make informed opinions about government actions. Though this information does not always hold up to strict, empirical rigour, it helps create a story or a narrative about each policy. In democratic countries especially, these narratives are sources of public pressure on governments to change policies. It is impossible (and foolish) to ignore the role narratives play in ensuring accountability and moving government policies in a certain direction.

It is in light of all of this that the failure to give voice to the concerns of children becomes more stark. While the current level of information is insufficient to accurately comment on the involvement of children in framing the Amendment, what is more readily apparent is the lack of child voices in the media furor about the Amendment and its repercussions. Only isolated pockets in print media convey voices of organisations that represent and directly work with working children. If this continues, the media will be guilty of continuing to treat children as if they should be seen and not heard. Not only is this bystander status demeaning to children, it could lead to a law that is counterproductive or to a state where children are not sufficiently informed about a law that directly affects them (which the adults debating about child labour on TV or otherwise can full well exploit).

Nidhi Gupta is a Social Policy graduate from the London School of Economics and manages outreach and business development at the Takshashila Institution

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