The infusion of social media into governance can be counted as one of the most conspicuous achievements of the NDA-II Government. It has effectively reset the complex operational dynamics of our vibrant democracy. When the Prime Minister did not send out his customary tweet after the surgical strikes by the Army on terror launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in September, it sent the Twitterati into a speculative spin. His campaign to send Diwali greetings to soldiers at the borders on the Narendra Modi app, may well douse some apprehensions of doubting Thomases. Such a personalised, social-media gilded style was unthinkable in the previous regime, which counted its social media wizards in single digits. More often than not, they got into unseemly twists for their virtual gigs like Shashi Tharoor’s derogatory “cattle class” tweets.

Under the present dispensation explanations are reportedly sought for absence from cyber space. Shaken, stirred and contorted, the political executive and ruling party functionaries have been left with no choice but to undergo a thorough makeover. The aam nagrik is not complaining about the bar being raised several notches. Hopefully -and very crucially –  vast swathes which remain forced out of the exclusive virtual haven because of indefensible failures over seven decades, will be  granted free and unlimited access and the much vaunted antyodaya goal will stand  substantially achieved.

The imperative of contemporisation to stay relevant has drawn in not only the political executive but the official hierarchy straddling below as well. All Secretaries to Government of India are expected to be active on social media.  Many have impressively long lists of followers. They are not faceless and anonymous anymore and take on their constituents in a proactive manner, very much like their political bosses, at times better.

What is more heartening is that the new-age functioning has percolated across verticals right down to the cutting edge. The inspirational work of District Collectors in leveraging social media must rank globally amongst the best practices in public administration, offsetting, almost inadvertently, the abysmal grading that is invariably tagged to us in this respect. Among the better known is N Prashanth,  hailed as “Collector Bro”, Kozhikode (Kerala), for his unique initiatives with catchy titles like Tere Mere Beach Mein, Kozhipedia, Hey Auto and Yo Appooppa. Connecting one-on-one with people by slashing many stodgy and sloppy layers has thrown up the most amazing results. Similar success stories from different corners of the country are stacking up by the day, awaiting their “viral” moments of glory.

For canny observers, governance is at a mesmerising confluence of an inflection point and a reflection point. The salience of the former is self-evident, as referenced above. The latter is critical because certain events have taken  place in the recent past which are seeded with the potential of morphing into dark holes, obliterating the tremendous gains made so far. The latest in this thread of events is the show-cause notice issued on 24 October 2016 to Vandana  Dadel, Secretary, Panchayati Raj, Government of Jharkhand, for her Facebook post in which she questioned the Government’s action against forcible conversions of tribals to Christianity in the State. Shiv Anant Tayal, Chief Executive Officer, Kanker Zila  Parishad, Chhattisgarh, was issued a show-cause notice and  removed from his post, earlier this month, for having raised questions about Deendayal  Upadhyaya, leader of the BJP from 1953 to 1968. While the local BJP cadres threatened legal action, the opposition dubbed it as “ideological terrorism in a democracy, smacking of insecurity and intolerance”. Tayal took down the post and  offered an apology.

In March, Alex Paul Menon, Collector, Balrampur, was issued a show-cause notice for putting up a post on his Facebook page claiming that 94 per cent of those hanged in the country were Muslims and Dalits. Menon, who was held captive by Maoists  for 12 days in 2012, had earlier shared posts supporting JNUSU president, Kanhaiya Kumar, and Hyderabad scholar, Rohith Vemula. He was forced to delete them after objections were raised by the BJP. Amit Kataria, Collector of Bastar, was pushed to the pull-down act after his post on the attack of tribal rights’ activist, Soni Sori,  being stage managed, was found to be incendiary. Ajay Gangwar of the MP cadre, in addition to being issued a show-cause notice and moved out for a perceived irksome Facebook post, was asked to explain why he had “liked” a  post critical of the Government, a year and a half ago!

It may be a mere coincidence that the state governments that reacted the way they did were helmed by the BJP and all the officers in the firing  line were members of the IAS. Without getting distracted by these riveting issues, it is important to draw attention to the proposed amendments to the All India Service (Conduct) Rules, 1968, to make the legal position crystal clear in the context of a changed  e-environment. The ambit of Rules 6 and 7, which relate to the definition of public media and criticism of the Government, is to be widened to  include social media and, surprisingly, caricatures, reminiscent of West Bengal in 2011! Consultations with the states are in progress and it is not known when the amendments will be notified.

On the face of it, they appear to be necessary, routine formalities in the updation mould. It is the enforcement of these amendments – if they are actually intended to be carried out in letter and spirit and not merely exude a deterrent force from the safe distance of the Rule Book – that will throw up tremendous challenges, calling for elaborate, intrusive  surveillance mechanisms, or worse, an invitation to “snoop raj”, advertently or otherwise, anathema in a democracy which values  professionalism in public service. Officers may experience extreme constriction, anxious of being shadowed even in their most private spaces and most private moments. It cannot be forgotten for a moment that social media has become almost an extension of the self, often with multiple co-existing  avatars, mind-boggling as it is. Imagine situations where Houdini-like, posts appear and disappear for a variety of reasons into the safety of limitless space, as has happened and service providers choose not to go along with the Government. How efficaciously can blame be pinned and action taken in such a bizarre, but not totally unlikely, scenario? This is certainly not a social media engendered disruption to look forward to. Only time will tell whether the amendments will eventually end up as yet another convenient  hammer, in a burgeoning  armoury, to bludgeon inconvenient officers with, accentuating existing vulnerabilities and making them understandably more risk-averse.

To seek to draw a firm impregnable lakshman rekha  between personal and public identities in a closely networked world, is fraught with difficulties especially for governance professionals. We are veering perilously close to  the mined zone of being perceived/declared as nationalist or anti-national, patriotic or unpatriotic for holding views which may not appear to conform to the party in power. It is  perhaps time for an overarching Social Media Policy to be crafted by the think-tank, Niti Aayog, to firewall ourselves, instead of mindlessly falling into a trap of our own creation.

Log-in time for decision-makers.

-By Tuktuk Ghosh