The right to know and the right to freedom of expression are two important pillars of the modern democratic state. The freedom of expression has been understood as an essential right for centuries.
However, it is only in the last two decades that social movements and political parties internationally have accepted that open governments are a prerequisite to participatory democracy and the dispensing of justice in a democracy.
India’s Right To Information Act, which enables access to information with over eight million users, has allowed the monitoring of small service deliveries at one end and huge scams at the other. Without information, justice will fall prey to majoritarian interests in the name of democratic decision-making.
All governments dislike demands made for basic citizen rights for transparency and consultation in the policy and implementation of so-called “development” projects.
This is as much a matter of corruption as it is of ideological differences.
The aggressive posturing of the current government and the perpetuation of the myth that “activists” block development will not alter this basic argument or the demand for openness and consultation.
In India, it is critical that varied interests monitor government, given the intricate, plural and even contradictory aspirations of a socially divided, hierarchical society. The mindless targeting of whipping boys—like “activists, NGOs, Left intellectuals” are all bogeys for pushing of the growth agenda.
The bypassing of necessary regulatory provisions—one example is dispensing with environment and other clearances—will not only destroy natural resources, but build up huge opposition, the kind that India has not so far seen on scale or spread.
There is a critique that the previous prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was silent, and he was. But the government is more than just the prime minister.
There were consultative processes and there were platforms for legitimate interface, including the Planning Commission. However ineffective they may have been, they still offered democratic differences a legitimate place in the mainstream debate: The debate on the poverty line, for example, with three different findings from Sengupta to Tendulkar.
The present government is rapidly closing down consultative platforms. No critique has legitimate space for presenting a point of view. Twitter and public speeches and slogans cannot replace real debate. The parliament is one space but we need others.
Unequal and opaque
The sharpness of the divide, between growth-obsessed India and the India that suffers for growth, has increased. A glaring instance is how local people have been displaced because of coal mining in states like Odisha and Chhattisgarh.
The present dispensation in increasing opaqueness of functioning has worsened an already unequal battle.
The affected people are critiqued as anti-development for protesting about their livelihood and not “sacrificing” self-interest for the growth rate—often damned as roadblocks to development.
In the poorest parts of the country, the people either never see the face of the government or see it at its very worst, when it comes to take away what it had never really given genuine rights to in the first place—land, forests, rivers, as well as rights under the Forest Rights Act, a critically important legislation for forest dwellers.
The powerful elite resist enabling people to be participant to law making, as it starts a process of continual questioning of arbitrary power. It is clear that for arbitrary governments to flourish opaqueness is a necessary pre-requisite.
Rights-based legislations may enable ordinary citizens to force disclosure of a Pandora’s box of favors and concessions, of policies framed in consonance with or against constitutional norms, without consultation and permissions granted in defiance of legal provisions.
Despite all the claims of democratic correctness, and an apparent commitment to the principles of transparency, accountability and participation by prime minister Narendra Modi and the prime minister’s office, there is a growing political culture of concentrating power in the hands of a single-leader alleged to hold the key to all solutions.
Apart from being impossible, it backtracks to a system, which contradicts democratic collective leadership. One of Dr Ambedkar’s three warnings for a democracy was just that.
There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness . . . This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.
Eulogizing the prime minister as a one-man army undermines the importance of a democracy and its citizens. One has to keep questioning the policies of the government at various levels, in order to ensure that the interests of all sections of society are factored in while decision-making.
The prime minister is visible on television, in press releases and on Twitter. But one-way communication is not the same as accessibility. He needs to get sufficient and regular feedback from the diverse group of stakeholders who will be affected by his development roadmap. The government needs to hear from, not just address speeches to, its people.
The exclusiveness of governance and its dangers bring Dr Ambedkar back in the centre of the debate:
It is not enough to be electors only. It is necessary to be law-makers; otherwise those who can be law-makers will be the masters of those who can only be electors.
An independent media should have been the first to articulate this issue. Without information, freedom is granted to one percent of those elected to power, and they then control and determine the future of the other 99 percent.
This could be the nascent beginning of a dictatorial regime that controls and filters information and news, as the first step to absolute arbitrariness.