Holding India’s politicians to account – By Ray Hudson

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Ray Hudson with Siddharth Choudhary. Photo: Ray Hudson
Ray  Hudson with Siddharth Choudhary. Photo: Ray Hudson
Ray Hudson with Siddharth Choudhary. Photo: Ray Hudson

A System For All Democratic Countries

How do you keep track of your elected representative in the second largest country in the world? Certainly the largest democracy on the planet, India has six national parties, 52 state parties and 1,112 registered but unrecognized parties. This should make for an impossible task.

“Not so,” says Siddharth Choudhary, a successful Canadian Chef and restauranteur who is also an IT Network Engineer. He’s proving it with the launch of a website, swarnimbharat.com, by his team of experts and volunteers both here and in India.

“We want this project to be the most comprehensive, data-driven, citizen-powered political report card in India,” said Choudhary, describing the application which will give voters easy access to comment, rate and review every one of the candidates for the hundreds of elections that take place at the federal, state and municipal levels.

 From the Kitchen to the Political Arena

“When I was growing up my whole family was very active in politics, and I’d been watching how elections happen,” said Chef Choudhary.

Although he was educated in Internet Technology (IT) as a network engineer, he trained and launched his career in the culinary arts. After two years working in Ireland he emigrated to Canada and launched the hugely successful Siddhartha’s Kitchen on trendy Commercial Drive in East Vancouver.
“Despite my success, my earlier experience in technology was reawakened by a really good friend who told me how we could help improve Indian democracy through technology with a special program that I had obtained the rights for.”

“I travelled to India and spoke to a couple of ministers and their secretaries to see if we could implement these technologies to resolve a lot of electoral problems. I was very happy with the visit and very optimistic, but I soon realized there is a big difference in the way they do business there. We needed to bribe, and we needed to ask everybody if we can move forward with this project. It was not an easy job, because no matter how many times politicians promised on their manifestos and election platforms that they wanted to make government corruption free, we discovered the reality was really something else.”

This spurred him on to develop a way that all those promises the politicians made and the record of their performances, could be checked.

“We just need to work on the algorithm to come up with a formula for the public platform where people could let everyone know what they are feeling,” said Choudhary. “Currently people feel helpless once the vote is done for another five years and once the elections are done the politicians aren’t to be seen anywhere. We’re saying the game is not over, we’re not going to forget what the politicians said. We will have a video link to all of the speeches each candidate made and it will be in their individual profile. That way, as time goes by, people can see if you did what you said, and can leave a review whether they did or didn’t do what they said they would.”

The Acid Test Comes in February:

“Our first opportunity to show what we can do will be in the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh state elections next month (February),” said Choudhary.

Beyond the Indian elections, Choudhary says the application can be made available anywhere.

“Because the web is international, the very large South Asian diaspora in Canada, and the Lower Mainland in particular, will be able to find out what’s going on in the ‘old country.’ Wherever people are, they can create an account and access the site to make their comments and share their opinions. They will also be able to see how much growth is, or is not, happening in their village, town or city, contrasting with what it was five years ago and what it is today.” How much work has been done by this MP, MLA, Councillor, Chief Minister, Prime Minister. People can monitor the changes and read the reviews of the people.”

Choudhary admitted that the scope was daunting, due not just to the amount of data they would need to compile, but how to handle the enormous traffic such a site would generate.

“We thought it was going to be a small job, that we would make a small profile and that’s it. But every day we came up with a new thing. There’s a Prime Minister, a chief minister and his ministers. We have to have data from previous elections. Only then can we compare apples to apples. So for everything happening in 2016 we have to have the data from 2012. As well, we are providing information about the candidate’s education; how many are multi-millionaires; what is their total wealth before and after the election; and other information about the candidate that is in the public domain.”

The system needs to be able to provide information on, and access to rate and review every one of the contenders and incumbents for the 543 seats in the Lower House (the House of the People) the Lok Sabha, and the 250 representatives of the Upper House (Council of States) – the Rajya Sabha who are elected by the members of State legislative assemblies). Add to that the 4,215 legislative assembly seats in India’s 29 states and seven union territories and ultimately the municipal elections as well. Estimates are, once data-input is completed, swarnimbharat.com will have 5,000 or more indexed and easily searchable web pages, in addition to news feeds, video and audio content.
“We have a team of fifty to sixty volunteers now, four managers in India and then we have a big IT team with huge servers to put data all over India,” said Choudhary the founder and Chair. At the top of my team in India, journalist Amrit Bhasker who is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief.

How do you ensure the integrity of the information, guard against false information on the site?

“We are trying our best to bring as much transparency as possible to the system. There are a lot of chances that somebody can enter comments and or a preference vote more than once but we’re linking each IP address so if someone tries to enter more than once, it will be blocked. Anyone who wants to enter a preference vote on the site can do so from G-mail, Facebook or Twitter.

We are trying to prepare a system where everyone in India is assigned an Aadhaar Card, which is a 12-digit unique identity number and with that card they will be able to log into our website from their Aadhaar card. When that’s in place the system will be safe and secure. I think that is the best way to ensure the integrity of the public input.

Getting the word out with the elections so close to the website start-up?

“We are lucky in that social media is helping in a big way,” said Choudhary. “The BBC did a good interview with us, local press is helping big time and we’re getting lots of attention on social media. I think people are realizing this idea is really good and are spreading the word.

The response is greater than we thought. When we realized we were going to have so many hits on the site, it caused us to change to bigger servers which can handle the traffic. So getting the word out isn’t the problem. Handling the traffic is the bigger challenge.”

Choudhary said they are showing the system can work in this instance, and posed the question as to why can’t it work everywhere else in the world where democratic elections are held? Certainly, it would seem that the “cloud” is the limit.

See www.swarnimbharat.com to explore the website.