Despite Free and Fair Elections, Our Idea of the Republic Is at Risk

On the occasion of India’s 70th Republic Day, it is worth considering how the very foundational idea of a republic, in which supreme power is held by the people, is at risk despite free and fair elections. To arrive at that argument, this article delineates the historical trajectory of India’s Right to Information movement as arising out of the need to address the unfinished agenda of democratisation since independence. It then discusses how the movement has strengthened oppositional politics by expanding the terrain for political participation and has also empowered individual citizens in their struggles to claim their entitlements from the state. By resisting scrutiny under the Right to Information Act and attempting to dilute the law’s empowering potential, political representatives and bureaucrats are subverting democracy itself. 

“Sinhasan khaali karo, ke janata aati hai” [Abdicate the throne, for the people are coming] - Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’, Sinhasan Khaali Karo, ke Janata Aati Hai, 1950

A century ago, when Indians were fighting for independence from British rule, attaining political freedom meant ushering in an era of hope and self-determination. This era held hope for justice, a better future, and genuine self-government in which the people would reign supreme. The poet Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ had exactly captured that sentiment in his poem written on the occasion of India adopting the Constitution in 1950. But, today, the democratic republic of India is ridden with a crisis of political representation. We have free and fair elections that allow us to choose our representatives, but there is no guarantee that they would genuinely serve our interests on assuming office. Money and muscle power increasingly determine electoral outcomes, with party funds and elections being financed through corrupt payments made in exchange for favours such as contracts or clearances (Vaishnav 2017; Sridharan 2013). The share of both Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) with pending criminal cases has also risen over the years (Vaishnav 2017: 10). Add bureaucratic inefficiency to this political situation and you have a crisis of governance brewing (DNA 2010), resulting in overall disenchantment with the democratic system. 

Corruption and abuse of state power have become entrenched in the bureaucracy today, but signs of the malaise started appearing right from the time of the Nehru government (Gill 1998). In 1962, the government-appointed Santhanam Committee had observed, for instance, how some ministers in the Nehru-led government “who have held office in the last 16 years have enriched themselves illegitimately, obtained good jobs for their sons and relations through nepotism, and have reaped other advantages inconsistent with any notion of purity in public life”  (Gill 1998). This trend has only continued with successive national governments. From the late 1960s a deep crisis in governance had set in, with India witnessing widespread unrest and protests from various quarters of society (Kohli 1990). In 1975, when the Indira Gandhi government declared the Emergency, it plunged Indian democracy further down the depths of despair. 

Struggle for Information Law

Concerns pertaining to the citizen’s right to know were first articulated in the case State of Uttar Pradesh v Raj Narain (1975). When the Indira Gandhi government refused to share the details of the Blue Book—an official document containing details of the Prime Minister’s security arrangements and movements during election campaigning in 1971—to help verify charges of electoral malpractice against her in the case, the court rejected the state’s claim interpreting Article 19(1)(A) of the Indian Constitution, declaring that citizens had a right to know (Bhushan 1978). The court judgment, which went on to declare the 1971 election of Indira Gandhi null and void, provided the immediate provocation for the declaration of the Emergency. After this dark phase that saw the suspension of civil and political rights for 21 months, the quest for openness and accountability in government came to be articulated strongly. From within the judiciary to government-appointed administrative reforms committees, and from grass roots movements to the press, the idea of instituting the right to know as a means to hold the state accountable came to be discussed widely (Maheshwari 1981). 

An obvious consequence of India’s crisis of governance was the poor implementation of state welfare programmes. In 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had famously noted that only 15 paise of every rupee meant for the welfare of the downtrodden reached them (Hindustan Times 2017). To address such concerns, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a non-party political formation based in Rajasthan, began to organise the grass roots struggle for right to information from the late 1980s. What began as an effort to secure minimum wages for labourers in public works programmes and help the rural poor seek their welfare entitlements from the state, developed into a full-fledged social movement in which ordinary people from the fringes of society came together to wage a 20-year-long struggle that finally led to the passage of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2005 (Roy and MKSS Collective 2018). The leadership of this movement, including bureaucrat-turned-activist Aruna Roy, believed that the political freedom that India had attained in 1947 was not true to the ideals envisaged by India’s founding fathers, given that the ordinary masses were still in various states of deprivation (Roy and MKSS Collective 2018). Scholars of South Asian historiography have discussed how Indian nationalism as it emerged during the freedom struggle was a “derivative discourse” continuing from the colonial project, and India’s attainment of independence was a passive revolution in which the elite captured political power from the colonial rulers (Chatterjee 1993). It is also worth recalling at this point what B R Ambedkar had observed during the Constituent Assembly debates in 1949. He said that political democracy would not last without social democracy, and that until the contradictions between equality in political life and inequality in social life remained unresolved, the prospect of democracy would remain vulnerable (Ambedkar 2016). These ideas have been articulated strongly by ordinary citizens who participated in the RTI movement. During my master's thesis fieldwork in Rajasthan in 2012,  conducted across Rajsamand, Ajmer, and Bikaner districts, I interacted with villagers who had participated in the various strikes and protest marches led by the MKSS in Beawar and elsewhere to demand the passage of the RTI law. They said that fighting for the RTI law was like waging another freedom struggle (Venkat 2012).

Such claims were made during the post-Emergency period by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) as well, while he led a political struggle against the Indira Gandhi-led government. His clarion call for “total revolution” was aimed at decentralising governance and preventing corruption (Devasahayam 2004). However, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) betrayal of JP’s efforts ensured that his vision for political transformation of Indian society did not materialise (Devasahayam 2018). Instead, as Devasahayam argues, the RSS-backed Janata Party usurped political power in 1977 riding on the back of JP’s anti-corruption movement, but ignoring his transformational agenda. Although the Janata Party fought the election on the promise of “open government,” it did not pass a law to make official information public even after constituting a working committee under then Home Minister Charan Singh to consider amending the Official Secrets Act, 1923. In more recent times, the Congress has invoked the idea of waging a second freedom struggle to defeat the Narendra Modi government in the 2019 general election (Jathar 2018). However, as an EPW editorial pointed out, these will remain mere rhetorical flourishes in the absence of any organised movement involving the people (EPW 2018).  

Prospect for Change

In his essay The Congress 'System' in India, Rajni Kothari (1964) elaborated on the idea of India being essentially a single-party domination model of political system, in which the oppositional forces checked the powers of the dominant party, and the margin of pressure within the dominant party could tip the scales in favour of the opposition if those in power strayed too far. In his conception, outside of the margin lie groups whose “role is to constantly pressurize, criticize, censure and influence it (the dominant party) by influencing opinion and interests inside the margin and, above all, exert a latent threat that if the ruling group strays away too far from the balance of effective public opinion, and if the factional system within it is not mobilized to restore the balance, it will be displaced from power by the opposition groups” (Kothari 1964). India’s Congress-led single-party domination model began to shatter in 1967, with the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the national scene, and the expansion of the political sphere in the post-Mandal era in the 1980s further reduced the might of the grand old party (Jaffrelot 1999). Nonetheless, Kothari’s framework remains a useful model to explore the dynamics of oppositional politics. Also, the return of a majority BJP government at the centre in 2014 has ushered in a new hegemony (Palshikar 2017). 

Using Kothari’s conceptualisation, one could view mobilisations made in favour of RTI as falling outside of the margin of pressure of the prevailing dominant party, bearing the capacity to influence it and creating a sphere of oppositional politics. The passage of the RTI law at the national level in 2005 was made possible due to the influence exercised by the leadership of MKSS on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA)I government, through the National Advisory Council, which functioned as a government–civil society interface. Five years after the law was passed, it helped unearth two major cases of corruption against the UPAII government—the 2G spectrum scam (Times of India 2011) and the Commonwealth Games scam (Times of India 2010)—thus helping consolidate oppositional forces raising their voices against corruption in the government. While helping delegitimise the party in power at that time, it also helped fuel the 2011 anti-corruption movement, which was a largely urban middle-class mobilisation under the rubric of India Against Corruption (IAC) led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal. Televised coverage of the anti-corruption struggle generated nation wide interest that also helped launch the political career of Arvind Kejriwal, who had worked in the Indian Revenue Service before taking to full-time RTI activism through his NGO, Parivartan, in Delhi. In 2012, he assumed leadership of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that was born out of the IAC group and won the Delhi assembly elections in 2015 to become chief minister, after a previous failed attempt to form a majority government in Delhi in 2013. Kejriwal’s electoral success is proof that when popular discontent is channelled through political mobilisation against the dominant party of the time, using information on mis-governance obtained through RTI, it can effect political change. This is, of course, not to endorse AAP or its brand of politics, but to demonstrate the dynamics of oppositional politics and its possibilities. 

Scholars have drawn parallels between the post-Emergency JP movement and the 2011 anti-corruption struggle (Prakash 2018; Singh 2013). The latter has also been credited as responsible for paving the way for the BJP’s ascent to power in 2014, much like the Janata Party’s electoral success, albeit short-lived, in 1977. In the 2011 anti-corruption struggle, however, the use of RTI played a crucial role because sensitive government-held information, such as on the allocation of 2G spectrum, could not have been brought out into the public domain had the information law not facilitated access to it in the first place. In Maharashtra, too, the Adarsh housing scamin which bureaucrats and relatives of politicians hijacked houses meant for Kargil war heroes’ kinwas similarly exposed through the use of the RTI law and Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan had to tender his resignation in 2010. Alongside RTI activists, government agencies such as the Central Vigilance Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Comptroller and Auditor General, too played their part in digging out details of corruption in the above-mentioned cases. However, without the information exposed through the use of RTI, this would not have materialised.  

Since the RTI law was passed in 2005, over 20 million (two crore) applications have been filed under it till 2017 (Nayak 2018). The most potent use of the law lies in transforming the everyday aspect of citizenstate interaction. Individual citizen action facilitated through the use of the law has helped in generating pressure on local state agencies to deliver on the stated goals of welfare programmes. Preliminary assessments of the use of the law have shown that grievance redressal from the state is among the key reasons why people are using the law. An analysis of RTI applications showed that at least 16% of the applicants were seeking information that was aimed at getting action on a complaint, getting a response from a public authority, or getting redress for a grievance (Bharadwaj et al 2014). There have been several recorded instances of state officials resolving a citizen grievance fearing the consequences of the RTI Act (Nair 2013). During my master's thesis fieldwork, I came across numerous instances of poor citizens successfully using the RTI to make inquiries about the status of their welfare entitlements such as subsidised foodgrains and the Indira Awas Yojana fund for housing. In Delhi, the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) has been encouraging slum dwellers to use the RTI law to hold their elected representatives accountable. In one such instance, residents of Begumpur slum in Malviya Nagar constituency found out that the MLA Local Area Development fund was being spent for putting up ostentatious public fountains in parks, at a time when slum dwellers and other residents in the constituency were hit by acute water shortage. After a public outcry, the MLA then laid pipelines in his constituency to ensure timely water supply for the people (Venkat 2012).  

Stifling the Law 

However, bureaucratic resistance to the implementation of the sunshine law has limited the many possibilities for change on the ground. An array of strategies have been deployed by the state, such as inordinate delays in responding to RTI queries, rejecting requests citing the exemption clause where it does not necessarily apply, and keeping the Information Commissions poorly staffed or not filling vacancies as they come up in order to keep the law from delivering to its full potential (Venkat 2015, 2017). Efforts to suppress the law started within a year of passing the law, when an amendment bill was introduced by the UPA-I government to exempt “file notings” of bureaucrats from disclosure (Singh 2006). However, following a direction from the Central Information Commission (CIC), the government backed down in 2009 and made all file notings open to access except those already exempted under the law. In 2013, another attempt was made to amend the RTI, this time to exempt political parties from being held accountable under the law, following a June 2013 CIC order deeming India’s six national political parties to be “public authorities” under the law. However, this effort, too, was thwarted as the amendment bill was referred to a parliamentary standing committee. The national parties have meanwhile refused to entertain RTI petitions and cases challenging this remain pending in the Supreme Court. The crisis of unfilled vacancies in the CIC, with eight out of 11 positions vacant until recently, came under the Supreme Court's scrutiny (Hindustan Times 2018). Though the government announced a new chief information commissioner in late December 2018 and appointed four new information commissioners to the CIC, it has not adhered to appointment procedures as directed by the law and its process of vetting applicants remains shrouded in secrecy. Meanwhile, delays in making crucial appointments have already led to a huge pendency of over 28,000 information appeals with the commission.[2] A 2018 Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) report noted that there has been a 6% dip in the number of information appeals received by the central government under the law in 2016–17 (Nayak 2018). The BJP government has also further sought to dilute the provisions of the law by bringing in an amendment to change the terms of employment of information commissioners in a bid to have greater control over their appointments and tenure (Deshmukh 2018). Social activists and regular users of the law have vehemently protested this. 

Having already reflected at length on the very rationale for demanding this law—as a means to fulfil the unfinished agenda of democratisation since independence—and having revealed the possibilities for change that have been demonstrated thus far through the use of the law, it is evident that any effort to subvert the right to information is a subversion of democracy itself. The ongoing struggle, therefore, is not to save the law alone, but to reclaim the very idea of a republic that we celebrate on this day each year. 

 

The author would like to thank her supervisors David Mosse and Subir Sinha at SOAS, University of London for commenting on an earlier draft of this paper.

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