Governance in 140 characters

The other day, my 85-year old uncle called from Lucknow. My father had told him that India Strategy Group was assisting Governance Now in Gov2.0. Never a great fan of government, his former employer, Uncle asked wryly what “Gov2.0” meant. As many of us handle the elder generation, I carefully skirted the question and focused on his medicines and morale. But yesterday evening, my father, a retired conservator of forests, ricocheted the same question, which his brother had asked. Dreading the slippery terrain, I countered why he doesn’t click www.gov2.in instead. But tenacity being father’s middle name, he already had!Bridging exasperation of the two seniors and the National e-Governanace Plan in concrete measure is Nirupama Menon Rao, 60, a poet and Harvard-trained strategist, who as Foreign Secretary is the first top gun in the establishment who replies to ordinary citizens, often within a few minutes. This isn’t a small step. It flies against advisories from the Intelligence Bureau, it’s in a ministry where Shashi Tharoor was hit around for responding to tweets, and, more importantly, it goes against the grain of ‘safety first’ that top babus covet over sticking their neck out.

Here’s how it started. On February 11, 2011, Rao set up a twitter account by the name of @ForSecNRao (now re-christened ForeignSecNRao). She’s now already past 5,000 followers, a small number when compared to Tharoor’s 950,000, but ahead to the power of infinity when measured against any of our top civil servants.“Leaving 4New York tonight. Enroute to DC. Spkg at The New School NY on India-China on Sat 3.30pm,” Rao first tweeted on. The world liked what it saw. In a matter of minutes it locked in. “Thank you all for your words of welcome!” Rao responded to welcome messages, quickly setting the context, “I just want to be able to put message out on our position on specific foreign policy issues of public interest.”The twitterati wouldn’t believe this. One Lalita Advani, with a self- description of ‘real estate facilitator, acerbic critic and concerned about corruption,’ hammered a question on our weak knees vis-à-vis Islamabad: “Welcome to twitter R we talking to the Pakis on US pressure? There has been no movement by them on any issue so why talk?” It was a ball that old- school diplomats in the Gavaskar mode would have “well left”. Rao didn’t. “Lalita- we r not under any pressure. Talking to our neighbours makes good sense,” she replied, addressing the tweeter directly. “We will definitely focus on substance and the real issues. No chai and biscuits really!” she assured another one. These citizen interactions couldn’t have come at a better time. Cairo and then Tripoli had thousands of Indians wondering about their families.

Following @ForSecNRao (now ForeignSecNRao) they could ask specific questions on our evacuation efforts. They could share important phone numbers from where Indian diplomats could marshal additional help. They could complain, sometimes rudely, and still get a polite answer. More than anything, they knew they were on a one-on-one with someone who mattered, not a tired and faceless underling reading from a script in an emergency control room. It must have been nice to know that if you complained accurately, the Indian ambassador would hear about it in the next few minutes. I’m unsure how many ambassadors have bought Rao’s Blackberry Torch, but all sides do have a better sense of what was bothering ordinary people.Speed has enhanced credibility. Editors of news channels, often whiners about not having enough information, have started ‘following’ and ‘retweeting’ the FS. And young diplomats across embattled missions are getting feedback that didn’t reached their peers in the BT (Before Twitter) Age. A virtuous cycle is self-evident.The argument now isn’t just about Rao. It is whether other top guns, the home secretary, the defence secretary, the health secretary, the D-G Forests, the Commissioners of Police, Chiefs of the Central Board of Direct Taxes or Excise and Customs, should use this tool and, therefore, sharpen the traditional forms of delivery. Some would argue that this will waste their time answering inane messages. Others would say Gov2.0 isn’t about tweeting, it’s about delivery on the ground.  It may interest that Rao still manages to sleep. So fears about insanity may be misplaced – Khaleejnews