The threat to autonomy

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanAug 02, 2019 | 13:04

The threat to autonomy

One senses that irony and authoritarianism go hand in hand. It is a story to be recounted years from now as part of the anecdotes of authoritarianism.

Governance can often be narrated as a parable or fable. These stories concentrate not on epic narratives but little acts of omission or indifference which bring out the mentality of a regime. It reveals its attempts to undermine institutions that anchor democracy by devaluing the norms that anchored it.

One such example is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to correct the anomaly between constitutional and statutory authority.


Nomenclature woes

The government claims that the Election Commission is a constitutional body while the Central Information Commission is a statutory body. Constitutional bodies have a halo around them whereas statutory bodies are more run-of-the-mill institutions. The gimlet eye of the government has observed that the information commissioners who run the Right to Information Act, 2005 have been given the status of a constitutional body, where they have the power, status and income of the Election Commission. 

The opposition is sceptical of the government's explanation about RTI amendment. (Photo: Facebook/Jitendra Singh)

This asymmetry in clerical details has been a source of vexation for the BJP and it has sought to rectify it. As the Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Jitendra Singh, explained, “It was a minor mechanism of rulemaking rather than a basic amendment of the RTI.” The government piously added that the autonomy of RTI has been left untouched.

The piety behind this narrative hides the Machiavellian mind of the government. At one level, it realises tactically that the Opposition forces are in disarray. It senses a perfect opportunity to consolidate the authoritarian power of the regime. It senses that this is the time for regressive amendments to destroy democracy’s great achievement. A technical ploy can reduce the RTI from one of democracy’s great achievements to another functioning department as dismal as any public works department. All the regime has to do is reduce the powers and salary of the Information Commissioner and whittle down his sense of autonomy. Other regimes have sought similar amendments but the BJP with its draconian majority realised it could pull it off.


Powers diluted

Like all regimes, it understands that technical details of governance are not clerical issues but life-giving ecologies that sustain freedom and autonomy. The government senses that it is not the discrepancy between constitutional and statutory authority that is the anomaly. The real source of the anomaly is the power and dynamism of the RTI. All regimes have found it a source of limitation and sought to emasculate it.

Is the RTI Act really getting emasculated under the garb of democratic reform? (Photo: Reuters)

The behaviour of the government is a revelation. As part of the Opposition, it realised the life-giving, interrogative power of RTI which creates rituals of vigilance, activates the dynamism of citizenship turns a simple question into a ritual of empowerment. RTI questions have a poetic range to exercise ranging from ration cards to Reserve Bank of India, from efficiency to unemployment.

Its very being challenges the possibility of misrule. For years, the RTI was a Damocles’ sword over any misuse of power. Today, the government hung the sword over RTI, seeking to emasculate its creative power. The information commissioner was a trustee, the key functionary of the RTI Act. By reducing him to any clerical functionary, the government reduced mentalities, the autonomy required to sustain RTI as a creative act of citizenship.


A banal move

In fact, the government has shown it is antagonistic to creative citizenship which demands the right to question governance, demand accountability and efficiency as a part of everydayness.

An organised protest against authoritarianism like that in Hong Kong is direly needed in India. (Photo: Reuters)

The RTI ritual of questioning made information a life-giving, life-sustaining concept. Questions were not toothless and statistics reveal that almost 90 people have been murdered for the simple act of asking a question. The potency of RTI was not in question.

The plot was simpler. How does one emasculate it while pretending to reform it? How does one keep the pretence of democracy, the alleged integrity of governance, while emasculating it in one Kafkaesque stroke? The regime found the right chink. A pious clerical move has consolidated its authoritarianism. Yet, one is surprised at the low tempo of protest.

Our country seems indifferent to governance while the protests have rocked Hong Kong this fortnight. There is unease and suspicion casting a gloom over citizenship. If protests do not increase, the government will get away with its cynical strategy. As a critic said, changes in the RTI Act followed no pre-consultation. A shroud of secrecy covered the transparency around RTI. One senses that irony and authoritarianism go hand in hand. It is a story to be recounted years from now as part of the anecdotes of authoritarianism.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: August 02, 2019 | 13:04
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