The evergreen legacy of India’s Independence movement is its conferring on the Indian Republic the right to self-determination
Shashi Tharoor | 09 Aug, 2019
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
EMERGING AS IT did from the Great Depression of the 1930s, the US
was confronted with a choice that could forever alter its political destiny. The New Deal policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) had generated jobs, staved off an unthinkable famine and lifted millions of Americans from desolate poverty. But it had also significantly expanded the size and scope of the US government. Government spending during this period reached nearly a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). FDR issued a staggering 3,723 executive orders during his term: as the Cato Institute notes, ‘more than all presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton combined’.
By the end of that torrid decade, there were few pieces of the economic pie in which Washington, DC had not dipped its fingers. If his predecessor Calvin Coolidge had declared the “chief business of the American people is business”, FDR, through his policies, had ensured the business of the American government was business itself. The New Deal resulted in an explosion of regulatory agencies, each determined to ensure the excesses of the ‘robber barons’ of the ‘Gilded Age’ were never repeated. This pervasive and unprecedented influence of government on American life invoked the question that the Roman satirist Juvenal had elegantly posed centuries before: quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Who will guard the guards themselves?
America’s response to the question took the form of another legislation: the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The APA’s mission was straightforward: open the US government to citizens unfamiliar with its labyrinthine network of agencies and departments. But the Act also sought crucially to shine a light on the process by which the government took decisions. Not only did it make public consultation a requirement for agency decisions, the APA also sought to make available all ‘matters of public record to persons properly and directly concerned’. The provision seemed plain on paper, but its enactment was a radical feat for an extraordinary time. The APA took nearly two decades to reach the floor of the US Congress, with the American bureaucracy doing its best to water down its provisions. But the Act’s passage was eventually characterised by a remarkable, bipartisan consensus. It was signed into law by President Harry Truman, and as the renowned lawyer Walter Gellhorn noted, ‘without a single note of dissent’. The provisions regarding disclosure of public records were far from perfect—the US government could withhold them where ‘confidentiality’ was required. Nevertheless, the fact that America was even contemplating legislation of this sort in an era marked by extreme Cold War secrecy was nothing short of astonishing.
The APA’s provisions on the disclosure of public records became the basis for the US Freedom of Information Act, 1967, among the strongest of its kind in the world. The success of the American experiment has a great many lessons for India, which finds itself at a similar juncture today.
The rallying of political support behind the APA had, curiously, more to do with economics than with fears of surveillance or authoritarianism by Big Government. Now that America had handed over the keys to its economy to bureaucrats in Washington, DC, just how were they going to steer it? Which constituents would they empower, and what sectors of industry would they promote? The APA ensured, through its provisions on disclosure and consultation, that ordinary citizens were still agents of their economic destiny. It was a tool to ensure America’s progress was not affected by raw or opportunistic political impulses of the time.
The India of 2019 is not at the cusp of a depression, but its economic indicators portend an equally alarming scenario. This year, the per capita income of Indians rose a paltry 10 per cent—wages have just not been able to keep up with the rise in prices, resulting in the poor growth of the bellwether fast-moving consumer goods sector. Meanwhile, India’s household savings rate has plummeted over the last five years. Unemployment is at a 45-year high. Exports have declined for the first time in nine months. We are saving less, trading less and consuming less. The Government’s callous mismanagement of the economy has ensured India has neither harvested the potential of its young, working-age population nor become an attractive destination for global businesses seeking shelter from the US-China trade war.
IRONICALLY, THE solutions to this crisis too will have to emerge partly from the Indian Government, much like FDR’s New Deal policies of the ’30s. In fact, several analogies have been drawn by commentators between post-reforms India and the Gilded Age in the US. The decades after liberalisation in India were marked by the growth of big industrial houses—by itself, a welcome development—but also by the retreat of the Indian state from providing basic infrastructure and civic services to its citizenry. Successive Indian governments have tried, with little success, to find the magic mix of policies, regulations and budgetary allocations that could create a state-sponsored social safety net, while spurring private wealth-creation at the same time.
With the engines of the economy sputtering, it appears certain the Indian state will have to step back in with increased investments in public works, health and education. Only, Indians do not have the tools their American counterparts had to hold their government accountable as it expands and to determine their own economic future. Harry Truman—no unalloyed capitalist himself—understood the importance of opening his administration to public criticism even as it made important and irreversible decisions on the future of the US. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power in 2014 promising “minimum government, maximum governance”, has all but stripped the citizenry of that most sacrosanct freedom in a republic: the freedom to know, choose and understand.
Its bludgeoning through Parliament of amendments to dilute the Right to Information Act is only the Modi Government’s latest assault on that freedom. The Prime Minister and his colleagues in the BJP have long made it clear they will brook no criticism or, for that matter, any attempt to render their governance to scrutiny. The ruling party has exhibited an almost pathological aversion to transparency in public affairs. The Government’s aggressive championing of electoral bonds has resulted in thousands of crores of rupees being pumped anonymously into political parties. The bonds vitiate the spirit of free and fair elections. By making expensive campaigns the norm, they ensure the choice of voters is reduced to picking between candidates with the deepest pockets. Unsurprisingly, the BJP has been the overwhelming beneficiary of donations through electoral bonds.
Then there is the Prime Minister’s war on data. Not only did it suppress the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) unemployment figures on the eve of the General Election 2019, the Government has also cast doubts on the veracity of its own information. To score a political point, the BJP threw the NSSO—a public institution whose data forms the basis of countless, critical studies at home and abroad on India’s socio-economic indices—under the bus. And when it is not fudging numbers about the economy, the Government has sought to bring the entire statistical machinery under its thumb. Its decision to merge the NSSO and Central Statistics Office in May 2019 and place them under the supervision of a bureaucrat at the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation is a death blow to the autonomy of both institutions.
No one should be surprised by the BJP’s actions—after all, this is a party that expertly harvests digital networks to funnel fake news into society. To the Sangh Parivar, there is no difference between the trained statistician and the Twitter troll—both exist to serve its political ends. But in the process of twisting such institutions out of shape, the establishment has deprived Indians, once again, of valuable information that could guide their political and economic choices.
Nothing has crippled more the freedom of Indians to learn and understand their Government’s decisions than the NDA’s amendments to the RTI Act of 2005, one of the most monumental accomplishments of our democratic governance in recent years. A law that allows an ordinary citizen, with no official power or authority, to elicit information from the powers that be is an extraordinary development in the practice of our democracy. RTI has created mechanisms and platforms for the practice of continual vigilance of our government by the public—a remarkable attribute now of our democratic citizenship. Changes to this law will now result in the Government determining the terms and pay of information commissioners, doing away with fixed tenures and pay scales that were originally instituted to preserve their independence from the elected leadership. The Government can now hire and fire the commissioners as they like, pay them what they choose, and this will inevitably vitiate their independence. That is why, when the Bill was sought to be introduced, I warned the Lok Sabha it was not just an RTI Amendment Bill, but an “RTI Elimination bill”.
The RTI is indeed the proverbial sling that can fell political Goliaths: it vests awesome power with the individual to question most aspects of governance
As I highlighted in Parliament during the debate on the RTI amendments, this Government had already hollowed out the effectiveness of the legislation in the last five years by leaving its crucial posts vacant. RTI applications are inordinately delayed, with the backlog mounting daily. Since 2014, no appointments to the Central Information Commission (CIC) have been made unless the matter was agitated in the courts. In 2018, the CIC had to function with just three of its 11 commissioners, prompting strictures from the Supreme Court. But despite they making some appointments, currently, four posts of commissioners are still lying vacant. Meanwhile, nearly 32,000 cases are pending, with over 9,000 pending for more than a year. This amendment is, therefore, if anything, part of a sustained effort by this Government to render the RTI, like the Human Rights Commission, a toothless tiger.
The RTI is indeed the proverbial sling that can fell political Goliaths: it vests awesome power with the individual to question most aspects of governance that concern her. This is why the BJP Government has taken a hatchet to it. Some 6 million Indians have availed of the right to obtain information from the government at local, state and Central levels. This has made RTI a challenge to vested interests at all levels of government because it threatens arbitrariness, misuse of privilege and corruption. They have obtained information from such diverse institutions as the village ration shop, the Reserve Bank of India and the Prime Minister’s Office; they have raised questions about the Ministry of Defence, on demonetisation, on electoral bonds, on unemployment figures and even on the appointments of the election commissioners and the non-appointment of the Lokpal. The information related to decision-making at the highest level has for the most part been given to them, despite some serious resistance by officials in government, because of the independence and high status of the CIC. That is what the Government is trying not merely to amend, but to end.
More than 80 RTI users have been murdered because of their courage and determination to persist in using the Act to challenge officials who wished to keep certain matters secret. But the Act does not pit the individual per contra the state. It is important to understand the background and enduring, systemic relevance of this law. The Act was passed alongside the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2005, and among its primary motivations was keeping the NREG process transparent and free from capture or pilferage by local officials. While the NREGA has its own audit and redress process, its kinship with the RTI is undeniable: at its core, the RTI intended to keep the government accountable as its economic agency over its citizenry grew. The animating spirit of the legislation is relevant today even if the political orientation or ideology of the current Government is markedly different than the one that enacted it.
As the Indian Government facilitates the growth of private capital and calibrates its policies to align the domestic economy with global markets, it will need to develop sophisticated regulatory instruments that ensure the playing field is even and competitive. Some of these regulations have probably not even been conceived at the time of writing: for instance, if Artificial Intelligence is going to play an expansive role in the Indian economy’s modernisation, who is to ensure that ‘intelligent’ algorithms coded into machines do not discriminate by caste or gender? Imagine if traditional, state-run employment exchanges were replaced by software determining the suitability of candidates to government jobs: how would the ordinary citizen know that her application is treated fairly by the ‘smart’ digital exchanges? The same concerns apply to private job portals as well.
The Indian economy is at a critical crossroads—much like FDR’s US—when the government’s regulatory choices will determine the economic fate of industries and ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, disruptions to traditional livelihoods will become more frequent as technologies upend jobs, necessitating the occasional government intervention. Far from receding into obscurity, the Indian state is poised to play a powerful role in shaping India’s 21st century choices. It is no coincidence that the freest markets contain the most powerful regulators to monitor the practices of industry. India’s developmental trajectory on this count will be no different from the US or Western Europe. However, to gauge the effect on our day-to-day lives, Indians need the tools to understand why key economic decisions were made.
This is also why the RTI Act also needs champions from the economic right. Through circumstance and design, the Act has always enjoyed the support of liberal and left-leaning civil society institutions, but the RTI should be placed above political ideologies or fealties. If the individual is to be empowered, and be truly in a position to ascertain her future, the RTI Act’s provisions must be strengthened, not diluted. The BJP understood this when it was out of power and aggressively championed RTI—perhaps all the more reason why, now that it is in power, it realises how dangerous it is to the unfettered power the party wishes to exercise in Government.
But the BJP should not assume they will be in power forever. One day they will find themselves in the opposition again and they will regret that they have destroyed the autonomy and independence of the RTI. Independent structures to regulate and monitor the government, and to keep its power in check, are vital to a democratic state committed to freedom and justice. When power is centralised and exercised at the whims of those in power, freedom is threatened, and democracy is in peril.
The evergreen legacy of India’s Independence movement is its conferring on the Indian republic the right to self-determination. But self-determination can never be total or absolute until each Indian citizen can exercise that right in its fullest sense. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have led his party to a commanding majority in the House of the People, but the true test of his leadership will be his willingness to let Indians make their judgements, decisions and choices for themselves. On this test, so far, he and his Government are failing.