Friday, October 21, 2011

An Alibi Called Secrecy

From Byword- India Today (October 21)

Secrecy in government can be both dangerous and essential. The difference lies in the cause: secrecy is criminal when it veils misdeeds, and honourable when it protects the national interest. Unfortunately, only politicians in office can make that call. Their primary impetus does not drive them towards transparency. They are far more adept at justifying self-interest with some rant about national duty. Patriotism used to be the last resort of the scoundrel; these days it is generally a first preference.

The debate on the Right to Information (RTI) is caught in this warp. Governments argue that in certain circumstances they are duty-bound to shade the truth, or even lie. We understand that. We also understand when that privilege is exploited. Every nation permits flexibility in the lie-line during times of war, for instance; but even in the fog of high patriotism we condone the evasions of a warrior but punish the falsehoods of a warmonger. The scars of George Bush and Tony Blair, who lied to drag their countries into war with Iraq, will not heal in their lifetime.

Dr Manmohan Singh's Government is not engaged in any war, except with itself; but fractious civil war tends to encourage the temptation of censorship. It has quite deliberately started a public debate on RTI, albeit with the usual feints and side-trips into blind alleys, aimed at amendments which will curb access to documents. Privately, this administration is convinced that RTI has degenerated into a licentious free-for-all.
If we want to understand why, then the correct question to ask is 'why now?'

Dr Singh did not inherit RTI. He can claim parentage of this legislation. He placed it among his more noteworthy achievements during the campaign for the 2009 general election, and doubtless won at least a few additional votes. During his first term, Dr Singh was perfectly content with RTI. Why has it become a problem two years into the second term? RTI procedures have not become any more liberal, although activists have become sharper and more sophisticated, blocking loopholes before they can be used to escape disclosure. The difference between the RTI triumphalism during UPA 1 and RTI nervousness during UPA 2 is fairly simple. Before 2009 Dr Singh felt he had nothing to hide. That confidence has melted with the disclosure of malfeasance by his ministers on an industrial scale. A series of self-inflicted wounds has shredded credibility, with RTI inflicting most of the injury. Corruption is the source of these wounds, making them gangrenous. The nationwide symbols of corruption are the Commonwealth Games and 2G spectrum sales. In both cases files obtained through RTI not only broke the story wide open but also sabotaged the possibility of any cover-up.

When governments seek to set the record straight, a question must follow: who set the record crooked? Before RTI it was far easier to blame media for distortion. But when media has in its possession a true copy of original files, then the whistle of the blower sounds more authentic than the convoluted explanations of a minister. Our parliamentary system has a nuanced approach to lies: any minister caught lying to the House is expected to resign, but a minister who can avoid the truth is considered clever and competent. RTI leaves ministers bereft of such protection.

Dr Singh's Government is showing all the symptoms of "secondtermitis", a wasting disease that can turn fatal. Most governments thrive after election; it is rather more difficult to survive re-election. Even the great Jawaharlal Nehru began to wobble after re-election in 1957. The peace pedestal on which he had constructed his international persona began to crumble on the China front by 1959 and collapsed during the 1962 war. At first glance Mrs Indira Gandhi's case seems an exception, for nothing could go wrong at the beginning of her second term in 1971. But by 1973, nothing could go right. Her third term, between 1980 and 1984, drifted on the acrid smoke of mistakes and violence, ending in the tragedy of her martyrdom.

Governments which are re-elected atrophy in the squeeze between high expectations and complacent delivery. They also begin to believe the illusion that opposition is dead. Nothing dies in a democracy.
Public life has more than one meaning in a democracy; it is not only about the management of public affairs, but also public in its process. The shelter of privacy is accorded to only a few subjects, notably defence. In other areas of governance, secrecy is an alibi, not a solution, and alibis do not even buy you much time at the contemporary exchange rate. Dr Singh no longer has a government to gain by whittling RTI, but he still has a reputation to lose.

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