Ravi Agrawal: Karmic Connection

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Online India needs to be a country in conversation with itself. Ravi Agrawal tells Aresh Shirali why

India Connected: How the Smartphone Is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy | Ravi Agrawal | Oxford University Press | 230 pages | Rs 550

IF RAVI AGRAWAL comes across as someone easily wowed by numbers—20 million Indians online in 2000, 465 million in 2017 and a billion-plus expected by 2025— blame the flap of his book’s jacket, do him a good turn and think again. And if the phone held in a mehndi-adorned hand on the cover of India Connected: How the Smartphone Is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy (Oxford University Press; 230 pages; Rs 550) stirs a ‘hum’ to go with a ‘ho’, then recall another cliché on how not to judge a book, do yourself a favour, and read it.

Having amused and alarmed myself doing exactly that, I drop my own handset in a sort of delayed response—literally, by accident, right off the table at Taj Vivanta’s Yellow Brick Road cafe where I interview the 35-year-old author and journalist.

“Is it alright?” he asks. It is. But the real concern in the air is what kind of Emerald City our airwaves are blowing this dataplan-whirled country towards.

‘Think global, observe local’ ought to serve as a good mantra on any such quest. Agrawal does both in India Connected. ‘In no other country does it have as much potential to disrupt centuries of tradition and barriers of wealth, language, caste and gender,’ he writes, setting a tone that would hearten anyone keen on a break from deadweights of the past.

Though he was born in London and now splits his week between New York and Washington DC, he regards Calcutta as his actual hometown, where he attended La Martiniere school before heading for Harvard University as an undergrad. A British citizen only by passport, “I see myself as Indian,” he affirms; “If I had to tick a box, it would be ‘Indian’.” And if working for The Harvard Crimson newspaper at college gave him his “reporting chops”, as he puts it, his long TV stint with CNN— first in London, then New York, where he was senior producer of Fareed Zakaria’s show, and later in Delhi as its South Asia Bureau chief—shaped how best to snap a story into context for a global audience. After a break for his book, he took over a few months ago as managing editor of the Washington-based Foreign Policy, a bimonthly magazine that aims to do what would daunt anybody these days: explain America’s stance to the world and the world to America.

Agrawal isn’t in Delhi to talk about what Trump is doing to the world, however, but what the most trumpeted device of all time is doing to India. On this, he is cautiously optimistic, deploying the analogy of what the car did for the US to justify his optimism. That wonder on wheels was far more than the sum of its commercial effects. It reshaped American culture. “The race and the chase, freedom and the notion of mobility...” he says, “the car is, or was, the very first private space for many Americans, their first major possession... with which they can drive off into the sunset, where many Americans have their first kiss.” What the car meant to US baby boomers, he believes, is what the smartphone means to young Indians today. “They are idealistic,” in his view, “and in a country that’s riven by all kinds of divides and inequalities, what they see [in the ‘magic device’] imbues them with some sense of hope.”

What makes him say so is nicely laid out in his book. From Phoolwati, a feisty Google Saathi who awes village women in Rajasthan with an internet that responds to the queries they voice, to Abdul Wahid of a Kolkata startup called Is It Possible who’s learnt virtually all he knows off the web and wants to turn education into a kind of ‘planetarium experience’, India Connected boasts of an endearing cast of characters for whom the magic device offers liberation in ways that are both profound and peculiar. What enlivens Agrawal’s story as he goes farther afield to explore Online India is the wry irony he employs for some of his most revealing encounters, be it whilst on his probe of a panchayat clamp on handhelds for girls deemed at risk of turning into lost ‘assets’ if lured away, or the cries of ‘Flesh-a-lilskee’ he hears being used elsewhere for selfies that he traces to an Alia Bhatt advertising clip.

The notion of politicians having their grand statements checked live by some guy with a smartphone is intoxicating

The ad campaign that sent Agrawal scouring the countryside for these stories, though, was Idea’s ‘No Ulloo Banaoing’ series of 2014 that had an election braggart stumped at the stump by a mythbuster armed with facts. The message: nobody would be fooled anymore. “The notion of politicians having their grand statements checked live by some guy with a smartphone is intoxicating,” he says, “I’m not saying this will work out for the better all the time, I’m just saying that it’s intoxicating.”

That intoxication, he admits, may be wearing off for some of us. “The spin in India is that this is a thing that could really improve your life. Much of this book is an exploration of that propaganda,” he says, drawing attention back to his car analogy. Just as it’s a great enabler, he says, it has its mishaps too.

And what of the other perplexities of connectivity? In a telling chapter on old taboos and new forms of courtship, Agrawal traces the travails of an executive who can’t find someone she’d like to marry till she hits upon a modern swipe-a-guy app that overleaps all traditional criteria, but only to find herself strapped by in-laws and drawn back to astrology (in a funky format for a change). Is internet exposure really altering social attitudes? “It’s speeding things up, playing catalyst,” as he sees it. But this doesn’t necessarily mean weddings will cast off the yoke of caste labels and horoscopes anytime soon. “Those kinds of things that are deeply ingrained may not change,” he says, “That surprised me, actually. I thought that as Indians become more tech-savvy, maybe they’ll become more Westernised, but maybe not, maybe Indian attitudes will endure—which is not to say I have any judgement on this, and I don’t really think one is better than the other.”

While the attitudinal shifts are modest, he argues, they are notable all the same. As a ‘vehicle for self-definition’ (his term), a phone might have little impact on caste rigidities, for example, but has made space for social signals that act as little levellers in their own right. “Indians flaunt their phones, they’re very blingy,” he says, “and the phone defines you in the same way that the car defines Americans.” Doesn’t this status-symbol mania reinforce a sense of hierarchy, though? “Yes, but at the same time, if you wanted to redefine yourself, you could, right?”

Sure, social mobility matters. So does cohesion. Could the smartphone turn India from what Francis Fukuyama might have called a ‘low-trust’ country into a higher trust one? “No, I don’t necessarily think so. It takes time for trust to be built and there’s a whole confluence of things that need to happen for that,” he says. “It could go either way,” he adds, “Look at fake news. The phone could be a tool to make us an even more low-trust society.” How easily—or eerily—that could happen is clear in the dystopic aspects of the data deluge that his book addresses, going from slightly gung-ho to somewhat grim as he widens his lens to include net addiction, pornography, fake news, lynchings, web shutdowns and other calls for caution.

‘The internet was once heralded as the tool that would make access to information democratic, free, and fair,’ he writes, ‘In a sense, it has demonstrably begun to do the opposite. We’ve been played.’

I’m deeply worried about fake news. I don't think Indians are really looking at how to solve this problem

“The entire second half of the book takes a very worried tone about where we’re headed. I’m deeply worried about fake news. I don’t think Indians are really looking at how to solve this problem,” he says, dismissive of a report that WhatsApp has just appointed a chief grievance officer.

What this country needs, Agrawal suggests, is a broad campaign on media literacy, perhaps a kind of private- public partnership modelled on past programmes for sex education and road safety that would educate people on how to put sources of reports to scrutiny, detect hidden agendas, and discern what’s true from what’s false. “We need people to sniff out fake news better than they currently are.”

Has gullibility in general gone up? “It’s now more visible to us through the smartphone,” to his mind, that’s all.

Another crisis he would like India to discuss widely is phone addiction, the fallout on depression and suicide rates of which he details in a chilling chapter titled ‘India’s iGen: Growing Up with Nomophobia’. What phobia? (It’s been skulking around my head). “No-Mobile-phobia,” he clarifies, relieving my eyebrows, “Nothing to do with Narendra Modi. The phobia of not having your phone with you.” Ah, so it’s like Fomo then, the Fear of Missing Out? Indeed, it is. “I was in the Andamans in December with no internet,” he laughs, “And I had a moment of panic.” We’re all afflicted by it to varying degrees, he says, and its perils could perhaps also be taken up as part of a campaign against fake news. “Ask the likes of Samsung and Jio to do something: ‘You’re flooding the market with cheap phones and cheap data; well, maybe you should also equip people with some knowledge about how to use these things’.”

It may or may not achieve much, we concur, what with so many so content in their own bubbles of belief. “It’s the same everywhere,” he sighs. “All the discourse on the internet as a tool of freedom…. The reality, as we have seen, is that people end up creating echo chambers where they confirm things they want to believe.” It’s worth a try all the same, we conclude. The ills of internet mischief need to be part of an earnest public debate.

Not too many citizens are aware of India’s status as the ‘world leader in digital blackouts’, for example. “It’s very striking to me that India has more internet shutdowns than Syria and Iraq,” he says, “and the fact that it doesn’t get talked about more is quite surprising.” These are, of course, local events specific to strife- torn regions such as Kashmir. Yet, “There needs to be a system: who makes the call and why, and how is it justified?” What the country needs is “some codification of the process”. Compared to the Aadhaar protest, he finds the silence over it mystifying. “If you had an internet shutdown in [Delhi’s] Khan Market, I promise you, it would be national news. Arnab would be on it.”

Ah, Aadhaar. It had to come up at some point, the one issue that he tackles rather too cursorily in an otherwise well researched and rounded book. His frustration with the whole thing, he says, is how both sides of the argument are talking at cross-purposes: civil society activists who point to its breaches without as much as a nod to its benefits versus a government that refuses to acknowledge the slightest infirmity. “If they were to be more open and honest about the deficiencies, and try to address them, I think people would trust them more for it,” he says, “There’s no shame in admitting that a system has problems.”

So too with the fury of Online India’s pace of change. For all the good that it’s doing—and it sure is—there’s a lot crying out for attention that’s getting lost in a tornado of tripe.

IF IT’S ANY consolation, it’s not as if the rest of the world has achieved much clarity on the shake-ups everyone is beset with. American foreign policy, of course, has had no small role to play in that. Is it even coherent anymore? “No,” replies Agrawal, “It’s difficult to understand [it] right now because so many of the old ways seem to have been abandoned.” He cites Trump’s preference for bilateral deals over multilateral trade as a menace, especially for businesses with supply chains that girdle the globe. “You can’t suddenly upend that system,” he says. “Also his notion that trade is somehow a zero-sum game goes against what many American presidents have said and believed in. Many diplomats are confused [about] what exactly Trump’s foreign policy vision is. It’s certainly not consistent with the last 25-30 years of American foreign policy.”

Is the world at threat of irrecoverable damage? “I don’t know, I don’t think anyone knows,” he says, “It’s certain though that Trump has shaken up the world order, he’s shaken up many of the old relationships.” America’s Nato allies have the most at stake here, given how vital Nato-hood is to their defence assumptions. “And then to suddenly say, ‘This treaty doesn’t make sense for America’? It riles people up, makes them wonder what’s going on in Washington. People are bewildered.”

It must be one helluva challenge to cover, then, for a journalist. “It’s especially difficult,” he says, “but also fascinating. We’re living through a turbulent, intense time in Washington. It’s fascinating to be in the thick of it.”

All in all, it sounds right up Agrawal’s alley, his new assignment as an editor, and if his India book is anything to go by, he’s been listening to a lot more than what raw figures and rave reviews have to say of all that’s great and glorious.