RTI is dying, but who will bell the cat?
The BJP doesn’t need the right to information act anymore with the achievement of the almost hegemonic position in electoral politics.
The Prime Minister and the BJP-party chief turned home minister have thrown the gauntlet at the civil society of the country by amending the Right to Information Act (RTI). What was considered as a landmark in India’s legislative history, the act that came into existence due to the persistent efforts of civil society, will be a toothless tiger once the Rajya Sabha passes the amendment bill. The government used its majority in the lower house to amend the RTI Act in a non-transparent manner. What was the need for the amendments? Who, in the entire country, demanded to change the law? What was the crisis that necessitated these amendments? The nation doesn’t know the answers to any of these questions! In fact, the amendments are aimed at snatching away the rights of citizens to know the inner workings of the government, from the government, and by the government. The amendments are against the very spirit of the RTI act wherein it was considered necessary to have an institutional autonomous arrangement to seek accountability from the government. If the government keeps all the powers in its own hands in terms of appointments, tenure, and salaries of the information commissioners, the latter might be more loyal to the government than to the people. The act was a major achievement for India to change the attitude of the government and its babus by empowering the common citizen with the weapon of the law. The amendments are undoing this spirit.
The amendments, however, are not unexpected from the BJP’s Modi-led government. The BJP has never been comfortable with the rights-based regimes. Nonetheless, in the past, it saw an opportunity to malign the Congress and other parties by supporting the demand for the enactment of the right to information for all the citizens. The BJP doesn’t need the act anymore with the achievement of the almost hegemonic position in electoral politics. Rather, the act with its original intent and format will be a hurdle for the ruling dispensation to continue with its political dominance. The question is what India needs. A complete hegemonic dominance of BJP or empowered citizens? The way the Modi-led government is amending the RTI act makes it clear that India cannot have its cake and eat it too! The time has come for civil society to take a stand. The Modi-Shah duo has challenged the citizenry of this country - don’t ask questions, don’t seek accountability, don’t demand legal empowerment! Let the country run on the agenda set by the ruling party on the whims and fancies of its leaders. Loyalty to the country demands surrender to the government that might be more loyal to election financers than to its voters. After all, the debts for orchestrating mammoth electoral campaign needs to be paid back in time and with interest, without which managing finances for the next election will be a difficult possibility. Thus, the rulers know what they are doing and why it is important for them to do it. Whether the civil society of this country and the activists fighting for their rights and their leaders are willing to accept the destiny charted by a powerful party and its almost almighty leaders? Whether India’s future will be shaped by we the people or thou the master?
Each challenge is an opportunity as well! The amendments to the RTI act are an opportunity for the Congress party to connect itself with those 60 lakh citizens who have filed RTI in the last 14 years somewhere in the country. It is an opportunity for the Aam Adami Party to stand up with the families of those hundreds of activists who were killed or attacked or threatened for using the RTI against the powerful in their locality. It is also an opportunity for Anna Hazare to emerge from the guilt and fight his way back to glory.
Once, Anna was basking in the bright sun of glory and fame for engineering consciousness for the right to information and institution of Lokpal only to be shamed with the guilt of crowning India’s most non-transparent and over-centralized government since the overthrowing of the British Raj. The movements at Jantar-Mantar and Ram Leela Maidan from 2011 to 2013 have a lesson each for Anna and Modi’s opponents. Anna never realized that he was used and thrown back to Ralegan Siddhi by Team Modi. Kejriwal, indeed, had his sixth sense and decided to reap the political benefits for himself rather than serving the interest of those who were manipulating the Anna movement. Ironically, Anna developed more antipathy towards Arvind than any other political leaders. By this time, hopefully, Anna has learned a lesson or two and has come to terms with his follies.
On the other hand, since 2013-14, Modi’s opponents have taken pride in branding Anna and his foot soldiers as agents of the BJP, rather than that of the RSS. However, they have failed to notice nuances in Anna’s positions and his history of movements. As a result, when he began his fast unto death right before the announcement of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Modi’s opponents enjoyed ridiculing him instead of pointing out the Prime Minister’s lack of commitment. It seemed like they were more against Anna than against Modi. It was not a principled position. Rather, it was little understanding of politics that led to Modi’s opponents targeting Anna even when he had upped the ante against the Prime Minister. But isn’t Anna himself responsible for the stigma of being an RSS agent? Since 2014, he has hardly spoken against mob lynching or on the rise in petroleum prices. He has not spoken a single word on the possibility of corruption in the Rafale deal even though any hint of corruption allegedly makes his blood boil. Whatever his compulsions were then, the dearth of alternatives has now generated yet another reckoning moment for Anna Hazare. When there is unrest amongst the rights activists and unease in the civil society, Anna has a chance to rebuild a national movement and through it, his image. Will he take up the gauntlet? Will he listen to his inner voice? Will he listen to his favourite Maratha warrior King, Shivaji, who would have probably asked him, “Tumhi Vida Uchalaal Ka?” (Will you accept the challenge?) And if not Anna, then who?
The author is the Head of School at MIT School of Government, Pune.