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Millennium Post

Opportunity knocks but once

Perhaps more than any government in recent history, the UPA has sought to project Indian power beyond its own shores. Banking on a wave of feel-good coverage of India, at home and abroad, the image of a burgeoning middle class, a large and well-armed military and a surging economy, with all its trappings, has been peddled across the globe by every diplomat, party leader and CEO. From Davos to Durban, Rio to Rangoon, the travelling road-show has sought to depict an India that leads the emerging world, snaps at the heels of the northern powers and ought to be viewed as an emerging superpower – a democratic China.

The economy story has been over for some time and it will be years before India can realistically match the military capabilities of the Americans or the Chinese. India’s influence can thus only be guaranteed through the exercise of soft power. By providing enlightened leadership within the global south, India could secure more long-lasting alliances based not just on the exchange of treaties and hardware, but on a deeper partnership with the people of these countries in the shared pursuit of democracy and the building of open societies. Yet in the battle for friends and proxies, hearts and minds, this government has failed to capitalise on its most valuable asset: democracy and the great Indian tamasha. In every developing country I have visited, the people I meet tell me that it is India, not China that they admire. For all the highways, ports and anti-aircraft missiles Beijing has bestowed upon their nations, it is India’s 65 years of relative peace and uninterrupted democracy, respect for basic fundamental rights and the strength of a vibrant, chaotic civil society to which they aspire. From neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh to countries as far as Brazil, Fiji and Liberia, India is seen as a role model for developing democracies and it is for this reason that community organisers, technocrats, academics and journalists have flocked to India to study the Indian experience and identify best practices to take home.

The Panchayati Raj system, social audits and the Lok Adalats have joined the pantheon of democratic experiments which have gained an almost iconic status in policy circles and social sciences classes around the world. Yet it is the Right to Information in which India has truly led the pack. Our RTI law is the second strongest in the world and the success of both government and civil society in generating buy-in has been breathtaking, drawing adulation from all corners of the world. The protagonists of the Indian RTI movement – Aruna Roy, Shekhar Singh, Nikhil Dey, to name but a few – are in constant demand from foreign governments, multilateral agencies and academic institutions seeking to tap into their experiences. At home these activists help to build and strengthen India’s democracy, exposing scandals such as the Adarsh Housing Society scam and giving citizens a real claim on their government. Abroad, they help build the image of an India at the vanguard of governance and development, accumulating soft power on which the government can capitalise in its foreign adventures. Yet that same government seeks at every turn to narrow the space in which these actors can operate.

Since 2007, activists and practitioners from across South Asia have visited India on an annual basis to study our RTI law and its implementation. The programme is run by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and has helped stimulate the emergence of RTI movements and laws across the region. Sanjida Sobhan from Bangladesh’s Manusher Jonno Foundation was a key player in the drafting of Bangladesh’s RTI law. She credits a great deal of Bangladesh’s success in adopting an RTI law to the precedent set by India and the knowledge gleaned from India’s RTI practitioners. Shifu Omar of Transparency Maldives cites the Indian RTI Act as the catalyst for the Maldives’ RTI movement, referring to his experiences studying the impact of RTI in India as ‘inspirational’. In Pakistan, newspapers and activists indulge in friendly rivalry, laughing ‘If India has the RTI, why can’t we?’ At a time when we seek to make friends with our neighbours, what better foundation for friendship could there be than the sharing of successes? Yet the government is willing to turn back the clock and accept failure.
By attempting to amend the RTI Act in order to exclude political parties from under its purview, the government opens the floodgates for the further dilution of the Right to Information. The June 3 central information commission order that brought six national political parties under the RTI radar has prompted a rare show of unanimity among political parties, whose leaders have been falling over one another to voice their opposition. With elections imminent at both the state and the national levels, civil society actors had been eagerly looking forward to utilising the law to address issues of rampant political corruption in India. Activists are most concerned that the CIC order will provide political cover for a much broader rollback of key sections of the Act, shielding not only political parties but also public-private partnerships from public scrutiny.

In doing so, the government undermines not just its citizens, but itself. Dayo Akinlaja, Nigerian Attorney General, prays for the Indian government to recognise that ‘it stands to benefit more than the downtrodden, hapless masses from the global acclaim and repute that RTI has won for the country’, lamenting that ‘it would be a tragedy if anything should unduly stultify the potency of the RTI Act in India’.

This is just the latest output from a government which is willing to cut its nose off to spite the face. Fearful of being bound to international standards, India refuses to join the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral forum promoting transparency and civic participation in which India would no doubt have been the darling and natural standard-bearer for developing nations. In a short-sighted attempt to evade accountability, the political class have relentlessly targeted civil society and the one effective tool it has to improve governance.
In the contest over whose is bigger, democracy is perhaps the one playing field on which India unambiguously trumps China and the one area in which India could effectively lead, but at home and abroad, this government has not missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
On arrangement with Governance Now
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