India, with Chinese traits?

New India: The new idea of transparency is a one-way flow of information, from citizen to govt
Last Updated : 28 July 2019, 05:56 IST

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Consider this: The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation recently notified a “code of professional ethics” for all members of committees set up by it or by institutions under its control. The code bars even former members of such bodies from sharing any deliberations or data. Remember the context in which this happened: The National Statistical Commission (NSC) had finalised a report on unemployment in the country in 2016-17 (the year of demonetisation) which said that unemployment was at its highest in 45 years. The government did not release the report, but it was revealed by a newspaper. The government suppressed the report and put out its own propaganda until the elections were over. It released the report at the end of May, since it no longer mattered what the truth was. With the gag order in place now, if there is bad news, we will probably never know about it.

Consider this, too: Under the Right to Information Act, 2005, an RTI activist asked the PMO to disclose the names of businessmen who accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his foreign trips. Such information is important, as one can see from the deal struck for 36 Rafale jets during the PM’s visit to France in April 2015, accompanied by businessman Anil Ambani, when the prime minister suddenly cancelled negotiations when they were in the final stages for 126 Rafale fighters, most of which were to be produced at HAL, Bengaluru, and instead opted to buy 36 fighters off the shelf from France and Anil Ambani obtained the ‘offset’ deal for the purchase made by the Government of India with taxpayers’ money.

In 2018, then Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) R K Mathur directed the PMO to release the information asked for by the RTI activist. The PMO had withheld the information citing ‘national security’ concerns. The CIC rejected the stance and directed the PMO to reveal the names of non-government delegates only, thus addressing the security concern. Also, such information was readily and voluntarily made available on the PMO website when Manmohan Singh was prime minister. It is almost August 2019 now, the PMO is yet to make available the information the CIC directed it to release.

Instead, here is what the Modi government did last week: It has moved to ensure that no CIC henceforth issues such directives. In the very first session of Parliament in its new term, the government brought in an amendment to the RTI Act, granting itself the power to set the salary and tenure of the CIC and the Information Commissioners (IC) at the Centre and in the states. In 2005, the UPA government, which passed the RTI law, had put the RTI institution beyond the pale of the government by giving the CIC and the ICs the same status as the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners who, in turn, enjoy the same status as Supreme Court judges. That is, de facto constitutional authority status for the RTI institution.

The Modi government has made the argument that it had no intention to downgrade or denigrate the RTI institution and harm the citizen’s Right to Information. It has said that it only corrected an anomaly because the RTI institution is not a constitutional body but a statutory body – one brought into existence by an Act of Parliament – and so it could not be placed on the same pedestal as a constitutional authority.

One could have believed the government. Except that in 2017, the same government upgraded the pay and appointment conditions of 17 tribunals and adjudicating authorities – also statutory bodies – to the level enjoyed by the Election Commissioners and High Court judges. The doublespeak and the deliberate targeting of the RTI institution – which empowers citizens with information -- is therefore glaring. In any case, the effect of downgrading the status of the ICs sends out a signal to those who must respond to requests for information from them, which will now be very different.

On the other hand, while the government does not want to give citizens any information about itself and about the prime minister, his education, the businessmen who accompany him on state visits abroad, etc., Prime Minister Modi wants to know everything about you! The government tried to make Aadhaar mandatory and link Aadhaar to every aspect of our lives so that – if taken to its logical conclusion -- the government could, if it chose, know exactly what we were doing at any moment. We have to thank a 92-year-old retired high court judge, Justice KS Puttaswamy, for stalling that move by filing a petition that eventually led to the Supreme Court recognising privacy as a fundamental right and forcing the government to water down the Aadhaar requirement.

And now, the government wants to know what the youth – Modi’s most crucial vote bank – are thinking and saying at any moment. Catch ‘em young, perhaps? Which is why, the HRD ministry has directed all higher education institutions to collect all their students’ social media profiles and link them to the HRD ministry’s own social media handles. That way, the government can conduct 24/7 surveillance and big data analytics of what the youth are thinking and saying. And once they know who is saying what, they can take appropriate action, too.

Last year, the government had attempted to build a nation-wide social media surveillance infrastructure, called ‘social media hubs’, in every district of the country to keep an eye on what citizens were thinking and saying and to make them “nationalists” and to ensure that they viewed the government and its schemes positively. Thought control, was the objective, as even the tender put out for the project made clear. But it had to withdraw the plan due to protests against it at a time when elections were approaching. Now, the government seems to have found the simpler way: force the information from students’ social media accounts to flow to it.

Lastly, consider electoral bonds -- the scheme that was rushed through Parliament by hiding it in the Finance Bill. The scheme ensures that political parties can collect any amount of money and from anyone in the form of these bonds, but no one – not the political party, not the donor, and not the SBI, which sells the bonds – is required to tell us citizens who is giving the BJP thousands of crores of rupees and in expectation of what returns. You, the voters and citizens of this country, cannot know and cannot ask who is funding the BJP.

And if that were not enough, the government also passed amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) granting national political parties immunity from investigation into the foreign funding they have received since 1976. Under electoral bonds, the CIA, ISI and the Chinese intelligence agency, too, are welcome to fund the BJP (and other parties). And so can the world’s most notorious business corporations. This scheme, along with the immunity to political parties from FCRA investigations, was rushed through Parliament in the name of increasing transparency in electoral funding!

Read Also | We’re heading into ‘electoral authoritarianism’

Clearly, the definition of transparency for the Modi government is that all the information about the citizen should be visible to the government, but everything about the government, the ruling party and its leader will be kept opaque from us.

Of course, if you do want news and views, you can turn to NaMo App, NaMo TV and ‘Mann ki baat’. Whatever else you see and hear, you must forget. Thinking of questioning the government on anything? Remember that under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which has just been amended, the government can designate anyone a ‘terrorist’ without due process. And Home Minister Amit Shah has already warned ‘urban naxals’ not to work against the government!

Oh, by the way, please remember, if you have any ideas of protesting against the government or calling its actions and intentions into question: there is no Opposition, the Supreme Court can be overruled, and the media…well, you have already been told not to believe the media, and you are obeying it so well!

Published 27 July 2019, 19:04 IST

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