#ElectionFever: What do party manifestos have in store for tech and digital rights?

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Tl;dr

With Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal going to the polls, we thought we would do our bit for #electionfever by analysing the manifestos of political parties across the spectrum. Our analysis is guided by our focus areas - improving internet access, safeguarding privacy and digital rights, promoting innovation and technology, and cybersecurity - and is meant to help voters understand how political parties are looking at these issues.

Electoral recognition for digital rights

Digital rights are becoming increasingly important in our country for two specific reasons. First,  there is an increasing number of young voters in the country, as more and more Indian youths conscientiously exercise their vote on the issues that matter to them. For example, in Tamil Nadu, out of the 6.26 crore people on the electoral rolls for the assembly election this year, 1.37 (21.86%) crore belong to the age group 18-29, of which 13.09 lakh voters belong to the age group 18-19 (2.1%). The hopes and aspirations of this young group of Indians who are digital natives rest upon the political promises of a better future. Second, more Indians come online every day. As per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India there are about 1.18 billion telecom subscribers and 757.61 million broadband subscribers as of 31st January, 2021 with quarterly growth rates of 1% and 3.1%. These massive numbers signal that the digital divide is incrementally being bridged for scores of our fellow citizens, though, as we have pointed out recently, it requires a mission mode to close the gap. The greater adoption of digital technologies signals a continuing belief that it has the potential to make our lives better. It’s immense potential can be realised through a rights based framework. But are our political parties ready for them?

Some Historical Context

Political parties have been slow to move, if at all, on digital rights. Indeed, before the 2019 general election, only the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 2014 had mentioned anything related to safeguarding the privacy of citizens: the party had promised to implement a robust data protection law that prohibits mass surveillance and had also promised to bar the use of Aadhaar for the provision of social services. The party had also mentioned topics such as, access to the internet, protecting India from cyber attacks and surveillance all issues which were not mentioned in the manifestos of either the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Indian National Congress.

To accelerate a greater recognition for digital rights we released a digital manifesto of sorts making an appeal that cut across party lines prior to the 2019 general elections. This saw a marked improvement, with parties across the political spectrum realising the importance of internet access and digital rights (see here, here, and here). Besides their previous promises, the CPI(M) manifesto also included a promise to repeal section 124A of the Indian penal code (the sedition law), as well the need to curb monopolies in the telecom and digital technology sectors, promote FOSS technologies, and increase public funding of science and technology to 2% of GDP. Meanwhile, the Congress began to emphasise the need to protect digital rights. Significantly, the party’s manifesto promised to enact a legislation that would uphold the right to privacy and broadly adopted the recommendations made by us in the Digital Rights manifesto.

Improving connectivity and internet access has still received some support even for those that were silent on other aspects of digital rights. For example, the BJP’s 2019 manifesto did consider issues of internet access and promised to connect every Gram Panchayat with a high speed optical fibre network by 2022. However, apart from mentioning the need to make financial data secure, the manifesto is mostly silent on issues of privacy - even the Personal Data Protection Bill is not mentioned. Similarly, the Samajwadi Party and the Aam Aadmi Party have spoken about increasing surveillance, with the former promising to restart the NATGRID surveillance system and the latter promising to increase CCTV surveillance in Delhi. We have written about the NATGRID before, highlighting the grave harms to privacy that could arise as a result of its implementation.

Given this mixed bag of sorts, we look ahead to a greater realisation of digital rights in one of the most significant state elections in recent times. Here we particularly focus on the assembly elections for the States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. We hope it helps advance informed choices for voters who care about digital rights along core areas of access, free speech, privacy, innovation, and cyber security. We follow a rough and dirty model in which in a table we place a “+” symbol for positives, “-” for negatives, and “?” for those which as per us do not present a clear foreseeable consequence or are ambiguous.

Kerala

First, we’re looking at the manifestos of the three major parties in Kerala: the BJP, the leader of the National Democratic Front; the Congress, leader of the United Democratic Front; and the CPI(M), leader of the incumbent Left Democratic Front. We have selected these parties since they received the largest share of the votes in the last assembly elections in 2016 (10.6%, 23.8%, 26.7%) as well as the 2019 Parliamentary elections (12.93%, 37.3%, 25.83%).

Party Increasing Internet Access and Digital Literacy Freedom of Speech & Privacy Promoting Innovation and Technology Cybersecurity
BJP (+) Free laptops to High School students and digital connectivity will be ensured across rural Kerala, and panchayats will be included under the eGramSwaraj to strengthen e-governance
(+) Intensive public participation programme through digital literacy volunteers for making all the people in the state digitally literate by 2025
(-) Creation of a data bank with information on persons working in fields of art and culture; identity cards for them. (?) IT to be prioritised with respect to industrial PPP based “Namo Techno valleys” along the lines of the Silicon Valley model
(+) Trivandrum to be developed as a core IT sector
(+) Computer hardware production to be encouraged
(+) New institutes for science and technology to be set up
N.A.
INC (+) For Internet Access a large number of promises including subsidised devices; coupons for students to purchase laptops; establishing digital libraries and Broadband connectivity
(+) Digital literacy mission to ensure digital awareness for all, with digital education and training for all students and teachers
(+) Public libraries with internet facilities in all panchayats
(+) All universities will publish their courses online
(+) Creation of a university for legal studies and cyber law
(+) Access to international journal portals to be made available at a subsidised rates for students and teachers
(+) Right to be Heard Act for mandatorily ensuring that the citizens’ grievances are heard by the appropriate authorities (+) Technopark model IT park in Malabar
(+) Measures, such as implementing a Kerala IT law and enabling remote work, will be taken to attract global technological companies
(+) Increased transparency through publication of all cabinet decisions and governmental projects online
(+) Start-up partnerships will digitise businesses including street vendors and farmers
(+) Promotion of new technologies in fields like agriculture, medicine, and administration
(+) Digital platform for the sale of local products without middlemen
(+)Naipunya package (including courses on digital marketing, digital content creation, digital art etc) for women who prefer to work from home.
(?) Strict controls and laws to be implemented against cyber-crimes and threats
(?) Strong penal law against individuals who insult women on social media
CPI(M) (+) K-fon public fibre optic network to be extended, and upgraded, and local networks of cable operators in Kerala to be utilized
(+) BPL families will be provided a free internet connection.
(+) Unemployed educators will be provided with state-of-the-art digital skills training on a wartime basis
(+) Online examination facility to be expanded
(+) Hostels for Scheduled Caste Children will be provided computer labs and internet facilities
(+) AI based digital platform for job seekers and skilled trainees
(+) The stand taken by Kerala for Net Neutrality will continue. (+) Kerala will be the hub of India’s electronics industry, with Thiruvananthapuram becoming an AI Hub, and Kochi a cyber valley. Emphasis will be placed on future technology-based projects
(+) Hardware production in Kerala will increase to 10,000 crore in five year through additional investment of 1000 crore
(+) Master plan for new artificial intelligence projects to be drawn up
(+) 2 crore sq. ft of IT parks and 2 lakh jobs to be created over 5 years
(+) Data centres to be promoted through K-fon, alongwith tech centres and hubs of excellence
(+) E-governance and governance governance-oriented framework reform will be introduced along with policy for innovation in economic governance.
(+) Innovative IT systems will be utilized to prepare a five-year plan in the context of Kovid
(+) Telemedicine and e-Health services will be propagated
(+) Digital platform for promoting innovative problem solving with fluid registration and tendering processes, along with innovation challenge competitions for students
(+) Free software will be used more in the e-governance of the state government
(+) Open source based applications will be promoted to expand the use of IT in small and medium enterprises.
(?) A special digital policing wing will be set up, which will include artificial intelligence, cameras, online grievance redressal systems and smart police stations.
(+) Cybertech, CyberTom and Hi-Tech Cybercell will work together to create a comprehensive system of cyber security.

All three parties have put a huge emphasis on improving not just access to the internet but also on increasing digital literacy, an extreme welcome move. An even larger push has given to innovation and the promotion of digital technology across the public sector, the private sector, and governance, as can be seen by the granular and detailed proposals laid down in the manifestos.

However, cybersecurity saw a muted and mixed response, with strict laws against online threats evoking eerie visions of the now repealed section 118A of the Kerala Police Act. Moreover, apart from a future Right to be Heard Act and a nod to net neutrality, no provisions promoting digital rights or safeguarding the privacy of citizens have been set forth.

Tamil Nadu

Next, we take a look at the manifestos of two major parties in the state of Tamil Nadu: the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a part of the United Progressive Alliance,  and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a part of the incumbent National Democratic Alliance. We have selected these parties since they received the largest share of the vote in the 2016 assembly elections (31.64% and 40.77% respectively) and the 2019 Parliamentary elections (32.76% and 18.48% respectively).

Party Increasing Internet Access Freedom of Speech & Privacy Promoting Innovation Cybersecurity
DMK (+) 4G/ 5G facilities will be provided in Government higher secondary schools and colleges
(+) Every government school and college student will be offered a tablet.
(+) All false cases instituted against journalists will be withdrawn
(+) Cases filed by the AIADMK against striking workers and those who protested against the Sterlite, Hydrocarbon, Methane and Kudankulam projects will be completely withdrawn
(+) Tie-ups between IT firms and higher education institutions will be promoted (-) Increased CCTV surveillance in public places
AIADMK (+) College students would be provided with 2 GB data for three years
(+) Laptops will be provided for students studying in self-financing mode in government schools
(+) Mini IT parks would be set up in each district
(+) Rs. 3,500 crore would be allocated towards online skill development training
(-) CCTV cameras for all tier-II areas and major cities across the State

The manifestos of both parties contain several positive promises with respect to increasing internet connectivity and promoting innovation, though any larger plan to increase internet access is missing in both. Moreover, neither manifesto contains explicit provisions for the protection of digital rights (indeed, the Kalavan app launched by the AIADMK government has faced several questions with respect to privacy and data protection), while both seem to promote CCTV-style surveillance.

West Bengal

Lastly, we consider the manifestos of three major parties in West Bengal: the Bharatiya Janata party, the All India Trinamool Congress, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). We have selected these parties since they received the largest share of the vote in the 2019 Parliamentary elections (40.64%, 43.69%, and 6.34% respectively), while the received the fourth highest (10.16%), highest (44.91%), and second highest vote (19.75%) shares in the 2016 assembly elections respectively.

Party Increasing Internet Access Freedom of Speech & Privacy Promoting Innovation Cybersecurity
BJP (+) 100% internet connectivity will be ensured in all parts of rural Bengal.
(+) Tablets would be provided to ASHA workers to assist them in their work.
(?) Courts and investigative infrastructure to be digitalised.
N.A. (+) A Rs 10,00 crore corpus will be provided to the Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay fund to establish polytechnic colleges and establish science colleges with state-of-the-art facilities.
(+) Rs. 300 crore would be used to set up new IT parks and develop existing ones, while Rs 100 crore will be used to set up biotechnology parks in cities.
(+) Kolkata would be developed as a ‘tech hub’ by incentivising start-ups, creating co-working spaces and offering low-interest loans.
(?) One nation one health ID card will be implemented and health records will be digitised.

(+) A Cyber Crime division would be set up.
(-) CCTV cameras would be installed on every street in Kolkata
TMC (+) A ‘digitally enriched education’ would be provided to students and teachers across schools and colleges.
(+) The ‘Taruner Swopno’ will be continued to provide tablets to 9 lakh students in class XII
(+) Every block shall have one model residential school enabled with digital classrooms.
N.A. (+) Policies would be undertaken to bring the power of Digital Revolution to all sectors of the economy. N.A.
CPI(M) (+) Every student shall be ensured access to the internet. (+) All political prisoners will be released, and all false cases lodged on political grounds will be withdrawn (+) Knowledge-based industries like Information Technology shall be promoted.
(+) A thrust will be given to small and medium enterprises, especially in the fields of information technology, biotechnology, and agro-based industries.
(+) An emphasis shall be given to scientific practices and support will be given to scientific and technological research.
(+) A scientific temper at all levels of society, especially among the younger generation, will be developed
N.A.

Given that West Bengal suffers from low internet penetration, though all parties have tried to address the issue of internet access, a lingering feeling remains that more could have been done. However, all parties did acknowledge the vital importance of information technology and scientific advancement, which would hopefully lead to an increased focus on building out digital infrastructure. The performance of the parties with respect to promoting digital rights ranged from the mild to the disappointing. Indeed, CCTVs-on-every-street style surveillance would only infringe upon the aforementioned rights, as would the privacy concerns that would arise from projects such as the Health ID programme.

A Digital Rights Charter

We have written about such issues previously: after conversations with stakeholder groups rights experts, we had drafted a digital rights charter addressing political parties across the spectrum and highlighting the digital needs of India.

IFF is grateful for the support of Anagha Sasidharan, a student at NLSIU Bangalore, who helped us translate these documents.

Important Documents

  1. Manifestos from Kerala for the 2021 Assembly Elections (BJP, INC, CPI(M))
  2. Manifestos from Tamil Nadu for the 2021 Assembly Elections (DMK, AIADMK)
  3. Manifestos from West Bengal for the 2021 Assembly Elections (BJP, TMC, CPI(M))
  4. A digital rights charter for political parties (link)