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PENS ARE MIGHTIER NOW

First there was Edward Snowden, and now there is Arvind Kejriwal. Each is an icon of gutsy uprightness in his own sphere of action. Mr Snowden’s location remains shadowy, but he speaks globally; Mr Kejriwal’s impact is fast spreading beyond the local. And the two men have taken radically conflicting positions vis-à-vis spying. But they have done so out of a commitment to their own ideas of democracy. Mr Kejriwal seems to have been remarkably successful in arousing the dormant vigilante in each person who likes to think of himself or herself as an ethical agent. Every citizen of Delhi is now an anti-corruption inspector, and, with a bit of help from technology and a little training, could become a successful sting operator. So, a pen, a watch or a pair of glasses suddenly seems to have lost its innocence, for it could have a camera hidden inside to catch an unsuspecting offender. This would probably alarm Mr Snowden. George Orwell had imagined just one Big Brother, but Delhi could suddenly be full of them. The spying that Mr Snowden exposed on a global scale — the macro-spying — might appear to have trickled down to a level of ubiquitous micro-spying. This is also why it is ironic that the cheap spyware in the Delhi markets is mostly made in China. Surveillance States breed surveillance junkies.

It would be wrong to assume that these gadgets have found their way into Delhi overnight. They were always there, and were being used mostly for purposes that are corrupt in all sorts of different ways — sometimes involving illegal, often sordid, forms of covert intrusiveness in both the private and the public spheres. But does it make sense anymore, after what Mr Snowden has revealed, to talk about the private and the public? Perhaps the entire vocabulary of privacy is last year’s language. Those who cling to it do so out of a naïveté or idealism that is laughably passé. So, armed with these secret cameras, people — self-consciously right-thinking, upright people — would turn the gaze of surveillance back upon those who had taken for granted their own power to keep an eye on others. This reversed surveillance could be a good thing — a new kind of empowerment producing a new form of democracy, in a jaded and cynical polity where a pen becomes a mightier weapon only when there is a camera hidden inside it.

Yet, it is difficult to believe that spying, or voyeurism, can suddenly be washed clean of its inherent corruptibility when used by people who have suddenly woken up to their right to take up the fight against corruption. Just as it is difficult to feel instantly comforted by the marketing of a new revolver specially designed for women — called Nirbheek, or fearless, in memory of the Delhi gangrape victim. There might be something, after all, in heeding Mr Snowden’s Yuletide warning to the world, that a child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all.