Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on May 21, 2021
It is important to harness informed technology so that we protect against and mitigate the very risks that are likely to play spoilsport in our attempt to strengthen the efficacy and accountability of government functioning.
Democracy: Debugging in process

This article is part of GP-ORF series — From Alpha Century to Viral World: The Raisina Young Fellows Speak.

Democracy and technology are the two most defining themes of the twenty-first century. Recently, the general belief seems to be that democracy is in crisis. Many seem to have one gnawing concern — is democracy failing? How do we fix democracy? Is this the end of democracy? A Google search of these three phrases gives 52,800,000 hits on the first, 56,000,000 hits on the second, and 247,000,000 on the last. But we must ask ourselves, is it the very concept of democracy that is perceived to be failing or is it liberal democracy that is receiving a pushback? Could it not be said that democracy is in an evolution churn, same as the disruption we see across every aspect of life?

What is democracy?

Democracy is a derived Greek word meaning power to the people or rule of the people. It does not have a static definition, but it does commonly consist of certain minimum criteria notions such as:

• Citizens’ elected representatives

• A free and fair electoral process

• Rule of law

• An independent judiciary

• A system of checks and balances on the power of the government through independent institutions and agencies, and

• All citizens to be equal before the law, with equal opportunities, irrespective of gender, religion, caste, creed

In addition to these, liberal (meaning free) democracy advocates for freedom of the individual, thereby presupposing recognition and protection of basic individual human rights and freedoms, which includes a right to live with dignity and the right to be able to express oneself freely, while limiting political powers. This protection of basic fundamental rights guaranteed under the law is what is most widely considered as modern-day democracy.

Gone are the days where political parties were meant to be adversaries not sworn enemies, as is the case today.

One of the key fulcrums of good governance is the provision of systemic checks and balances vide independent well-functioning institutions. The biggest obstacle to this is political games and partisan agendas. Gone are the days where political parties were meant to be adversaries not sworn enemies, as is the case today. The polarising rhetoric and demagoguery leave no room for compromise, and any deviation from the original stance would be akin to showing weakness. Adding to the furor is the rise of populist governments formed on the strength of the fear and anger of a growing population that is increasingly feeling “left behind.”

But what does this mean for the ordinary citizen? Freedom of speech is coming under attack now more than ever before. In India, for instance, there has been the longest internet shutdown in the world<1>; clampdown on dissent in every form<2>, including arrests under stringent and archaic laws<3>; tax raids<4>; open calls for Hindutva vigilantes<5> and a Hindu rashtra (nation)<6>; a bullied media<7>; and compromise of near all institutions<8>. On the other hand, what do the tenets of democracy mean to a citizen who does not even earn minimum wages after 20 hours of manual labour, nor access to the basic necessities of food and shelter?

Adding to the furor is the rise of populist governments formed on the strength of the fear and anger of a growing population that is increasingly feeling “left behind.”

Rise of populism

Globally, we are seeing a surge in populism and a resultant rise of majoritarian authoritarianism, with multiple factors likely to have attributed to this retreat into nationalism. These include the advent of the internet bridging real-time connectivity, the growing divide between the rich and middle class, the growth of information and communication technologies, globalisation, multiculturalism, modernisation, inflation, and rising expenses.

Illiberal leaders and parties, once elected to power, use their legislative majorities to amend the electoral system; subvert balancing processes by using executive power to subdue the independence of other critical and gatekeeping institutions like the judiciary, election commission or central agencies; reinterpret the mode of application of rule of law; rewrite history; deepen polarisation in society; delegitimise the opposition by labelling it anti-national; denounce all protests by dubbing the protesters as terrorists or inspired by some ‘enemy country’; promote xenophobic nationalism and establish monopoly claim to represent the nation; and create and thrive on public paranoia in seeing an “enemy” in minorities and migrants<9>.

Can you be both populist and democratic? The short answer — yes.

This ‘us vs. them’ politics played by the strongmen leaders of today is corroding society and creating a divide where the followers are blinded to any errors by their great chosen ones. Can you be both populist and democratic? The short answer — yes.

It is not necessary that all illiberal democracies are fascist governments. Instead of attacking illiberalism, it is important to understand what is causing the global rise of populism. Is the majority feeling excluded? Does the rise of technology play a role in this? Do populists believe they are restoring/reforming democracy to the hidden ignored majority trampled upon by the elite minority? It is perhaps ironic that in a world where technology connects and breaks through borders, distances, religion, sex — and is perhaps the only true secular realm there is — our nations are increasingly retreating into nationalism, populism and almost fascism.

“Hate speech and oppression can effectively paralyse any hope for progress via democratic decision-making,” and promoting them is a “relatively inexpensive way for unethical leaders to maintain the status quo — and their power…Countries that embrace authoritarianism are more likely to do violence to their own people (generally the poor, immigrants, sexual minorities, religious minorities, etc.) and are more likely to blame any problems that the country may face on those people — and on enemies beyond their borders…Thus, more energy is expended demonizing the other than addressing actual problems…While the powers that be are spending their time raising hatred and fear, the problems that their country faces continue to deteriorate thanks to their misgovernance”<10>.

Role of technology

People often oscillate between technology being the problem or the solution. Must it be an either-or situation? It is important to harness informed technology so that we protect against and mitigate the very risks that are likely to play spoilsport in our attempt to strengthen the efficacy and accountability of government functioning. There is no denying the tremendous force and power of deploying this ever-evolving computer science that has completely seeped into our daily lives. At the same time, the devastation its manipulation can wreak is equally, if not more, terrifying<11>. However, it is the new frontier, and it is here to stay, and our dependence on it is only going to increase. If there was any semblance of doubt before, the past year has surely shown the world otherwise. COVID-19 unified the world like never before. Leading experts from across the globe shared knowledge, technology and science in their tireless fight against a common enemy. With most countries announcing simultaneous lockdowns in early 2020, and life coming to a standstill, technology became the hero. There was rapid innovation by companies to provide protective equipment and home and industrial sanitisation, awareness campaigns, almost immediate business pivots to adapt to changing consumer needs, a multitude of services moved online, platforms such as Zoom reached erstwhile unimaginable heights, and humankind showed how resilient and empathetic it can be in the face of the unknown. Technology has made working from home and ordering essential items and being able to stay connected with family and friends extremely convenient. On the other hand, our gadgets have become an extension of our bodies, our digital footprints and data are increasingly vulnerable to cyber threats, and one internet outage or tech glitch could prove fatal.

Technology has made working from home and ordering essential items and being able to stay connected with family and friends extremely convenient.

Accountability and Transparency: Recent years have shown gaping holes in the existing mechanisms meant to protect against government overreaching. When a party wins elections with a resounding majority, it can override any opposition to its conduct, leaving citizens vulnerable to authoritarian practises. Parliamentary debate is bypassed, and proceedings are merely a cacophony. In such instances, it is even more imperative that the separation of powers between the different branches is maintained and all interactions recorded to ensure transparency and avoidance of misuse. The independence of the judiciary, media and key institutions of the independent agencies play a crucial role in curbing excesses of a majoritarian government. Mandating digital communication for all government officials and members of parliament can be a starting step in maintaining digital records, as well as logged reasoning for every decision taken to introduce accountability and minimise corruption. Metadata and digital trails can be deployed to keep track of our representatives in times of crisis. A recent example is US Senator Ted Cruz being caught on video flying to Cancun, Mexico, when Texas, the state he represents, was hit by a winter storm and severe cold wave that caused widespread death and destruction<12>. Funding into political campaigns must be reported, in whatever form and all spending must be presented for audit with public records available for the same. All decisions, tenders or projects granted to related or conflicted persons must be subject to the scrutiny of a truly independent agency. The Election Commission must have a centralised application for legislators or representatives where all details pertaining to them must be freely available to all citizens including details on pending legal cases, assets, tax reports, business interests and allegiances. Just as for other roles, persons who are insolvent or accused of acts involving moral turpitude and previous convictions of serious crimes, must be automatically barred from contesting elections.

Effective Decision-making: In India, a common complaint of businesspersons is the labyrinthine bureaucratic process. Automation of applications for permissions, licenses and compliances could assist in faster processing and ease of doing business, as well as eradicating the need for satisfying middlemen wants and delays caused by bureaucracy and red-tapism. Technology can enable digital tabling of proposed legislations with exchange of comments and feedback shared during parliamentary proceedings or at the local/ state level to be available for public record. Constructive discussion and progressive debate can be encouraged by implementing a point-based system for legislators basis their participation, to be adjudged by the chair of the houses of parliament. Additionally, data from various departments can be processed simultaneously to provide macro as well as micro level reports in minimum time so that all factors are considered while taking decisions without the negatives of siloed sectors.

Rule of law: The use of digital transcripts, virtual courtrooms, submission of documents in digital form, online portals for listing of cases and record of precedents, among numerous other new measures, has assisted in bringing to the judicial system renewed efficiency and enabling prompt justice and ease of filing<13>.

Voter Inclusivity: Democracies are based on free and fair elections. This is also where technology can play the most pivotal role by enabling larger voter inclusion. Without taking away physical polling booths, the need for digital voting is vital and can streamline the electoral process drastically. Lesser resources are required on ground thereby decreasing the cost to the exchequer of holding elections, votes can be counted in real time, and citizens who cannot be physically present in their voting jurisdiction can also participate in the electoral process. Additional features can be the online registration of voters, monitoring tools, transmission and recording of results, and the tabulation of results.

Unifying and Magnifying Platforms: Social media is widely criticised for its use in the dissemination of misinformation, misuse by trolls and spreading negativity. This is significantly outweighed by its power to bring life to crucial campaigns, such as the #MeToo movement or the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, and giving momentum to public interest issues like climate change. It is the quickest way to highlight atrocities in different parts of the world and bring people together despite geographical distances. The internet provides a space and voice for victims, and information on resultant proceedings alike. It has also transformed the way information is consumed, shared, processed, disseminated and even how it is recorded. Factual information against propaganda, reporting of events or injustices and citizen journalism are just some examples of how technology facilitates transparency.

Citizen Participation: With the advent of the internet, there has been a sharp increase in public engagement on politics and relevant topics. The access to information while not always factually correct, has sparked civic participation, which is far better than apathy. The greatest danger to our future is apathy (said primatologist Jane Goodall), and the price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by ‘evil men,’ according to Plato. Even Albert Einstein said, “the world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything”<14>. Technology can make cities “smart”. Transport, sanitation, education, administration, safety, emergencies, and grievance redressals can all be facilitated and serviced through a single citizen portal. The same may also be used for regular applications and permissions, and inviting referendums and feedbacks on relevant topics. With time such technologies can be expanded to rank local officials and bodies, thereby creating a direct system of accountability where the elected representative has to continue to earn their seat through good governance, and is dependent on the vote from their local district, and not on the basis of the party they belong to.

The flipside

Privacy Concerns: Fears related to the use of technology are not new, and countries are already working towards protecting against these. The General Data Protection Regulations passed by the European Union in 2016<15> and India’s Personal Data Protection Bill (awaiting enactment)<16> are examples of protective provisions that may be implemented to safeguard the exploitation of citizens’ private information. This will only further evolve as time goes on.

Misinformation: The menace of false propaganda and data is not new, but is significantly heightened by digital platforms and instant messaging in this viral world. The 2016 US presidential election has been riddled with controversy. It is widely presumed that the misinformation campaign led by Cambridge Analytica against Hillary Clinton, speculatively upon the behest of Russian influence, resulted in former US President Donald Trump winning the election despite not winning the popular vote<17>. Brexit is another example of misinformation leading to a referendum most did not understand at the time of casting their vote<18>. The onus is on individuals to fact-check claims before blindly sending forwards.

Hacking: With the upswing in technology-enabled warfare, countries must fortify domestic security measures and build the necessary firewalls and encryptions to protect against spyware, hacking, data theft and similar threats, irrespective of whether technology is to be used as a tool for enhancing democratic principles.

Government Surveillance: China and Russia openly surveil every digital and physical step made by their citizens, and control access to external applications and knowledge vide a great firewall. In the UAE, certain functions such as video and voice calls on social messaging apps is restricted. India too has been pressuring Big Tech to give it unhindered control over private data exchanged by citizens in the name of national security and the implementation of the recent intermediary guidelines provide worrisome wide sweeping powers to the Government and effectively put an end to end to end encryption of social media platforms<19>, blocking of dissenting pages on Facebook<20>, suspending opposing handles (as is being seen in the tussle with Twitter)<21>, and the demand for access to video recordings of meetings (such as those on Zoom)<22>. Unless living a completely offline life, one no longer has much control on non-interference by the government.

Appropriate and well thought out protocols, standards, regulations and legislative action to curb excesses, monopolies and/or manipulations by Big Tech companies including provisions to increase opportunities for local businesses and vendors balanced with checks on authoritarian interference by governments; increased accountability from technology companies; a reform of competition laws to keep the market field levelled for both domestic and international players; use of informed technology by governments; citizen awareness on how their data can be misused and how to protect against it; fact checking before sharing; and crucial investment by nation-states on sophisticated security measures to protect against miscreants, can provide some counter to the downsides of technology from escalating. Democracy can be exponentially strengthened by using existing digital infrastructure and tools to increase participation by citizens in the electoral process and in local governance. Building involvement from the grassroots up, where any misdemeanour by local representatives can be easily logged onto a digital platform along with electronic evidence, may result in instilling some level of hindrance from corruption.


There is no aspect of our current lives that technology does not touch. Digital transformation can improve efficiency, effectiveness and transparency of governance to promote sustainability and increase accountability and civil participation. Digital technologies can also pose risks to democracy and governance, especially concerning privacy, data protection and undue surveillance. Political establishments and the public need to adapt. “Parliaments, political parties and governments need to evolve quickly to keep pace with the citizens they represent and serve. Joining their citizens on the latest technological platforms is critical if governments are to maintain public confidence”<23>.

Technology has the potential to increase the efficacy of decision-making and problem solving, if harnessed and implemented correctly.

Rebuild. Reform. Repair. Fix. We need to see the current resistance to liberalism as an opportunity for growth, to upgrade the system of checks-and-balances and reengineer institutions to withstand the pressures of autocratic governments. With every great crisis comes great disruption, paving the way for a new tomorrow. With technology exponentially changing the way we consume, live, function and travel, how can we imagine remaining stagnant in the democratic ways of yesterday? Democratic functioning too needs to embrace technology to move to the future. Technology has the potential to increase the efficacy of decision-making and problem solving, if harnessed and implemented correctly.

The truth is, our world is drowning in compassion fatigue, mounting expenses, increasing taxes, gentrification, daily technological advancements, natural disasters and pandemics, and the ever-widening gap between the haves and have nots has never been more glaring; there is just no space left for a human being to care for anything other than themselves. Survival of the fittest has perhaps never been more relevant. Those funding political campaigns have only their self-serving interests in mind, and the legislator — never mind the ideals they originally got into politics for — falls into line to ensure the seat remains. And so the cycle goes. Transparency in funding is needed, and technology can and should do this.

If democracy is in fact for the people, by the people and of the people, then the people themselves need to rise to the responsibility and stop being complacent armchair critics.

There will always be two sides to every coin. Politicians may be corrupt and self-serving, but we do still have governments. Is there a viable alternative? If democracy is in fact for the people, by the people and of the people, then the people themselves need to rise to the responsibility and stop being complacent armchair critics. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is that technology is the one force that has the potential to infiltrate every realm of our lives, and that human beings can innovate and adapt much quicker than we expected ourselves to. As times change, so must our systems and our erstwhile notions about the details these comprise.

Churn and disruption are good. Historically, it has always been crisis that compels one to change, else complacency seeps in. We need only look at the US President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump’s nationalistic attitude to be reassured that the tide will always shift. With every great evolution, there are risks involved. If we simply stay in the same place, we will never grow. So is the case with democracy. It must evolve, adapt, and reform with the changing times. The sheer magnitude of benefits and opportunities that technology provides is there for all to see and yet its extent is still imperceivable. If we fail to harness the best practices to increase our daily governance efficiencies, it will be us who will be the losers.

It is time to change the narrative from doomsday gloom to pragmatic optimism. Fix the bugs, simplify the algorithms, do a series of A/B and beta testing and soon a new version of democracy will be ready for an upgrade. Like every technological software out there, democracy too is a work in progress.


<1> Sandhya Keelery, “Number of internet shutdowns lasting over three days India 2015 to 2019,Statista, 16 October 2020; Niha Masih, Shams Irfan and Joanna Slater, “India’s internet shutdown in Kashmir is the longest ever in a democracy,Washington Post, 16 December 2019.

<2> Edmond Roy, “Crushing Dissent in a Paranoid India,The Interpreter, 10 February 2021; Meenakshi Ganguly, “Dissent is ‘anti-national’ in Modi’s India,Human Rights Watch, 13 December 2019.

<3>Thank You,Indian Express, 25 February 2021; Shariq Us Sabah, “Sedition Law: Crushing Dissent in India since 1833,Citizens for Justice and peace (CJP), 7 September 2018.

<4> Bharat Nayak, “IT Dept Surveys The Quint & The News Minute’s Offices; ED raids Greenpeace Office,The Logical Indian, 11 October 2018; “Punjab CM flays Centre for intimidating ‘arthiyars’ with motivated IT Raids,The Tribune, 26 February 2021.

<5> Kapil Mishra, “How to join Hindu Ecosystem,Youtube, 19 November 2020; Meghnad S and Shambhavi Thakur, “Hate Factory: Inside Kapil Mishra’s ‘Hindu Ecosystem’,Newslaundry, 15 February 2021; Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre, “National Crime Volunteers Concept,” Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India; Internet Freedom Foundation, “MHA's new programme allows volunteers to report "anti-national" online content for removal,” Internet Freedom Movement.

<6> Arun Srivastava, “RSS steadily moving towards creation of Hindu Rashtra,Mainstream, 21 August 2020.

<7>UP Police books the Wire editor over ‘disreputable’ remarks on Yogi Adityanathan; website’s founding editors call charges ‘politically motivated’,Firstpost, 2 April 2020; Jon Allsop, “India cracks down on Journalism again,Columbia Journalism Review, 5 February 2021; Sidharth Bhatia, “Indian Journalism is in Deep Crisis, all in the name of ‘Balance’,Outlook India, 24 June 2020.

<8> Vishal Soni, “India: Interference with Autonomy of Democratic Institutions is a threat to democracy,Mondaq, 3 May 2019; Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, “From CBI to RBI, an incomplete list of institutions that Narendra Modi has undermined or threatened,The Scroll, 31 October 2018.

<9> Rakhahari Chatterji, “Political illiberalism a new beast in town,Observer Research Foundation, 12 February 2020.

<10> Douglas Schuler, “Can Technology Support Democracy?,Digital Government: Research and Practice, Vol. 1, No. 1, Article 3, January 2020; “Serving the Community: A Public-Interest Vision of the National Information Infrastructure,Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, 1993.

<11> Recorded Future, Cyber Threat Analysis: China- China-Linked Group RedEcho Targets the Indian Power Sector Amid Heightened Border Tensions, Insikt Group, 2021; Kari Paul, “What you need to know about the biggest hack of the US Government in years,The Guardian, 15 December 2020.

<12> Shane Goldmacher and Nicholas Fandos, “Ted Cruz’s Cancun Trip: Family Texts Detail His Political Blunder,The New York Times, 19 February 2021; Sanford Nowlin, “Photos purport to show Ted Cruz on flight to Cancun, as Texans endure power failure,San Antonio Times, 18 February 2021.

<13>The Courts and COVID-19: Adopting Solutions for Judicial Efficiency,e-Committee, Supreme Court of India, 4 July 2020; Vijay Singh, "Justice Reform 4.0 Delivering Justice online shall be the future,Edex Live, 23 June 2020.

<14> Gunnar Jahn, “Nobel Peace Prize 1962 Award Ceremony Speech,” (speech, Oslo, December 10, 1962), Nobel Prize.

<15> General Data Protection Regulation, EU.

<16> The Personal Data Protection Bill, India, 2019.

<17> Ian Sherr, “Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and Datamining and what you need to know,CNET, 18 April 2018; Hillary Clinton “Zuckerberg should pay price for damage to democracy, The Guardian, 2019; “The Great Hack,” Netflix, 2019.

<18> Jonathan Rose, “Brexit, Trump and Post-Truth Politics,Public Integrity, 19 (2017): 555–558; Wikipedia, “Allegations of unlawful campaigning in the 2016 EU referendum,” Wikipedia.

<19> The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, India, 2021.

<20> Kuwar Singh, “Social media censorship in India has increased over five fold since 2016,Quartz India, 12 November 2019; “Facebook temporarily blocked protest page that supported farmers,Campaign India, 21 December 2020.

<21>Updates on our response to blocking orders from the Indian Governement”, Twitter Blog, 10 February 2021.

<22> Kanishka Sarkar, “Delhi Police ask Zoom to share details of farm stir “toolkit” meeting,Hindustan Times, 16 February 2021.

<23> Chris Spence, “Using New Technologies to Strengthen Democracy,” Young African Leaders Initiative, 2015.

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Suneera Madhok

Suneera Madhok

Suneera Madhok is a feminist a humanitarian liberal democracy activist and a lawyer by profession. Nomos Associates her entrepreneurial legal venture specialising in intellectual property ...

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