Bringing political parties under the RTI - a big mistake

The Central Information Commission’s (CIC) order to bring six large political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act set the ball rolling for a head on collision between the political class and the civil society. There has been much name calling since, so much so that the outcries (and hashtags) of #SaveRTI have unceremoniously drowned all opposing viewpoints. The spectacle of politicians coming together in uncharacteristic haste has only added fuel to the fire.

It has been sixty six years since independence and many say that the credibility of the Indian political class has never been lower. Nonetheless, the case for including political parties under the RTI is not as straight forward as it is made out to be. It is not an “obvious to do” in our quest for transparency, and the political parties are not wrong in questioning this imposition. In fact, I think that if political parties do get included under the RTI, it’ll only do more harm than good. I am actually going to use this space to argue just that.

The Right to Information Act passed by Parliament in 2005 applies to bodies set up under the constitution or under some law, and bodies owned, controlled or “substantially financed” by the government. The term “substantially financed” is not defined – an unfortunate lacunae in the legislation. Using ambiguous terms and leaving them undefined for subjective interpretation is never a good idea as it inevitably leads to confusion and litigation.

Be as it may, the CIC expanded the scope of this term to rule that “substantial financing” does not imply “majority financing” and that tax exemptions, allotment of premium land for party work and accommodation in Delhi at subsidized rates is adequate ground for classifying political parties as substantially financed. Had political parties been taxed at normal corporate taxation rates, more than 30% of their income would have been would have been taxed away. This, the CIC observes, amounts to indirect financing. Moreover, since political parties are “continuously engaged in performing public duty” and wield significant (direct and indirect) influence on governmental power, they ought to be covered under the RTI.

In this particular instance, I think, the CIC is just hopelessly wrong.

If the same logic were applied to other not-for-profit organisations (registered under Section 25 of the Companies Act and exempted from paying income tax on the donations received) or companies provided hefty tax exemptions (for setting up export units in Special Economic Zones or new industries in difficult mountainous terrain), a large number of private organisations would suddenly find themselves under the ambit of the RTI. Many of these NGOs and companies lobby for changes in policy and thereby also exercise significant influence on government decision making in domains relevant to their areas of expertise. Given CIC’s rationale, I will be surprised if these bodies manage to stay out of the RTI for long!

Tax exemptions should never have been a consideration in the first place; only grants and loans should have been. I think it is imprudent to take such an expansive view of financing. In doing so, the CIC has pushed boundaries and infringed into the private space. This does not bode well for private organisations as it can significantly increase administrative costs and hinder decision making processes.

Let’s be clear: RTI is meant to empower the general public to demand information from the “State” – the public body. Private organisations and associations should be kept out of its purview.

For those who think that political parties have public character, let me argue otherwise. A political party is an “association of people”. It is a body that represents only its members and such other people who identify with its ideology and objectives. Simply put, it an “interest group” that seeks power directly through the political process. It does not represent the general population and, as such, cannot be answerable to it.

Unlike the government (or its agencies), a political party need not treat all sections of society equally - it can choose to be more favourably inclined towards a select group of people. For instance, a party that represents dalits is most certainly within its rights to raise concerns affecting only dalits or proposing electoral candidates only from the dalit community.

In the final electoral test, the general public gets the option to elect (and thereby pass judgement) on the candidates put up by the party. Only after being declared victorious, does the party candidate (and still, not the party) become answerable to the general public. Therefore, bringing political parties under RTI goes against this basic principle.

Now let me come to the second part of my argument: that including political parties under RTI can only do more harm than good. This might seem counterintuitive at first, but there is a very rational basis to it.

Under the RTI Act, public authorities are required to provide access to procedures and norms followed in decision making, minutes of meetings, records of instructions given and decisions taken – all information that gets generated and recorded as per the requirements of the law governing the public authority. The RTI does not require authorities to generate new information or improve the granularity of what gets recorded! Public authorities merely comply with the laws under which they have been set up, and only open their records to the public.

Therefore, if the regulating legislation does not require political parties to report (or for that matter, record) information on small donors, there is nothing that the RTI can do fill this lacunae.

If political parties really want to circumvent the RTI, they can easily do so by being careful about what goes in the minutes - because instructions are often passed orally unlike in a government office where there is strict requirement to get directions issued in writing. Political associations work in an informal setup, especially with respect to finances. A lot of black money gets used and often there is no trail. There is no way then for the RTI to help extract any useful (read: incriminating) information.

What the RTI will end up doing instead is this: it’ll hike the administrative burden on political parties and increase the requirement of resources. The RTI Act requires every public authority to appoint Public Information Officers in all administrative units. Coupled with the time and manpower required to process and contest appeals filed on denial of information, RTI could be a substantial drain on party resources.

The real solution lies in amending the regulating legislation (in this case, The Representation of the People Act, 1951) to make it mandatory for political parties to record information on donors and to get their accounts audited by, say, firms empanelled or approved by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) before submitting to the Election Commission. The Election Commission can then make this information available to the public.

I understand that this is a more difficult reform, but the RTI cannot help bypass it.

Let me conclude by saying that in countries such as the US and the UK, the quantum of state funding available to parties and candidates is also substantial. Yet, political parties are not covered under the Freedom of Information Act. However, and rightly so, parties are subject to stringent reporting norms and auditing requirements that make the whole exercise far more transparent than in India.

I think there is need to tread carefully and to undertaken thorough deliberations before picking a side. There is a lot more to the debate, if one is willing to scratch more than just the surface.

The CIC order can be accessed here:

The writer is a policy researcher based in Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]

The Independence Day Rhyme: Ecstasy & the Agony


Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

Where the right road was wholly lost and gone

[The Divine Comedy - Hell]

 India – The Gloss & The Dazzle, ah the Ecstasy: An emerging superpower and the world’s largest democracy. One of the fastest growing telecom markets in the world. India’s wealthiest 100 worth nearly $250 billion. 60+ billionaires in $ terms. Beetles, BMWs and Jaguars. Nearly 2 million passenger car units, 13 million two-wheelers, 85 million pairs of jeans, 6 million laptops and netbooks sold per annum. 300 glitzy malls across the country. 10% Internet user penetration, 65% of those being Facebook users. Not to forget the bourses - NSE market cap in the vicinity of $1 trillion. FII net inflows of nearly $23 billion in 2012, taking their total cumulative investment in the nation’s equity market to $125 billion.

Index 18,000. Sensex being the only sex, rest being sodomy. Fast cars and slow gait. Neighborhood gyms and heart attacks at 35. Love handles, one bucket from KFC and 3 digenes. Muffin-tops and tight tees. Please!

India - What Lies Beneath, oh the Agony: Divided and stuffed into a 100 different little boxes, by those who strut around as political “masters”. A 100 different vote-banks, one for every reason, lesion and treason. Poverty. Farmer suicides. Scamrashtra. Dead soldiers, ceasefire violations and euphemisms like maturity, diplomacy, aman and asha to hide the pusillanimity and spinelessness….. Hey soldier, did you just die? Tch tch, martyrdom is your duty, OMG OMG, I am a minister from Bihar, ruling over the living dead, ha ha, ho ho hee hee, look at me and die one more time you wretched, dead soldier. Oh I am sorry - please don’t fire me Mister Chief Minister.

Murdered whistle-blowers and a deceived civil society.

Proxyocracy reigning supreme, as the Queen surveys the empire while issuing no instructions to anyone.

And how can we forget the Jamai-raja? There, is that him? Cruising on the autobahn, wind in the Schwarzkopffed hair, cheeks fluttering comically as they often do at high speeds when one achieves Zen on a Harley, oversized shades [Versace?] lending a certain darkly tainted hubris to the apparition, as he flirts with vivid thoughts, some involving sucking on mangoes, sweet and soaked in the blood of dead farmers from places he has never been to, and places which, I suspect, won’t even dignify his presence. No banana peels en route. Cruising like cruisers cruise. Thumbing his nose at the aam aadmis who inhabit his family-run banana republic.

A Prime-Minister who chokes by the time he reaches the third letter of the word “Accountability”. A cabinet minister or two, with a clean chit in hand and two in the back pocket. Hear them roar even before the first letter of the words/names like Poodle, Ashok Khemka or Solar Power rolls off the tongue. And others – Squealers straight out of Animal Farm - who pass off for a breed called spokespersons roar with them.

Some, admittedly, are born to roar.

Others, seemingly, are born to be wild.

One must fall at their feet and hold their hands, invoking linkages filial and spirituality trivial. Rape me not brother; are you not your sister’s keeper? Asaram concurs, and many score followers nod in vehement agreement. The godlessness of the god-fearing. Savages. Rapes. Scams. Kleptocracy. Thuggocracy.

FB status update and arrests. 124(a) and cartoonists. Twitter and jail – leave Karti Chidambaram alone, don’t you know who his father is? Who is Durai Dayanidhi’s father then, I ask! And Kanimozhi’s? Who are S.P.S. Rathore’s godfathers? Who is Rajendra Shekhawat’s mother? And who is Robert’s mother-in-law? Who is Pranab’s son? Questions questions questions. On integrity and ethics that are six feet under. On vulgar attitudes that tread with an affected grace all around – a most revolting sight that.

Decapitated soldiers on the border and a spineless set of rulers admiring tapestries in Lutyen’s Delhi. A sliver of gelatin where the spinal cord ought to be. Clean chits and an enslaved CBI. A toothless EC? Blame it on the Representation of People’s Act, dahling! CVC, CIC, CAG & RTI facing existential threats. A judiciary that is,,,,,read my lips.

And the 4th estate?

Oh dahling, we are the 5th column…..vulture journalists now, devil’s strumpets the next moment. Hail intellectual auto-eroticism, shall we now! Did you not love us all screaming banshees as we swerved between Rambo hither and Scambo thither, while 6000 people died in Uttarakhand? Were you not impressed by our reportage and root cause analysis even as school children died in Bihar? 

Impact journalism? What’s that baby?

[Said with a pinch of gumption and more than a dash of unction]

Wrapping up: Oh, the grotesque dichotomy and the horrendous absurdity. Visions of malbowges [see the opening lines of the piece again] on my mind. Rose-tinted glasses and the monstrosity that the blind don’t see, the shrieks the deaf don’t hear and the stifled cries the dumb don’t utter. A colossal tragedy or a farcical comedy? Laugh till you cry or cry till you laugh?

Democracy, liberty, integrity, humanity and good governance. Elections, loot, plunder, rape and repression. A durga robbed of shakti by a slippery eel wrapped in a banana peel that is lodged in the dark underbelly of a temple of democracy.

So soft, so mulayam. Such a dreg.

India. Shining? Superpower in the making? The greatest democracy? Rights? Liberty? Education? National pride?

Nah. A democracy hemmed in by the narrow limits of crony capitalism and vested interests of the unholy troika of politics-crime-business, offering the true benefits of democracy and freedom only to a minority. A large majority of the populace lacking the energy and will to bother about splendidly meaningless concepts like freedom and democracy; for 400 million, the next meal is the only question of immediate as well as near-permanent importance. If they don’t get too busy dying, that is. While food grains worth $14.5 billion are allegedly looted by you-know-who in UP alone over the past decade.

Seen a starving man of late, good Sir? Tell him to eat less. How less? Errr,,,,12 bucks sir? Nah, make it 5. Shut up you dunderheads, 1 buck will do. O dear starving man, do vote for FSB. We have ample reserves of rotting grains preserved safely in warehouses all over this blessed land. Do vote before you die good Sir - and if you die before you cast that precious vote, I will kill you. Burrppp!

India. A commodity. To be sold to the highest bidder.Because Politics is family dhanda. Cut it this way, slice it that way, wrap it in a cellophane and walk away with your portion Sir. 15% commission, 100% omission, the electorate gave us permission. You don’t like my rhyme much, do you Sir? I don’t like your reason either.

So for no rhyme or reason, let us continue calling it the world’s largest democracy, shall we? Well done oh feudal overlords, well done.

It is said, if pain had a singing voice, Janis Joplin epitomized it….. “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose……”

Happy Independence Day.

  [email protected]. [Twittering tittle-tattle: @ShiningPath1].

To read his other posts on criminalization of politics, politics as a means to generate obscene amounts of personal wealth [nation be damned], electoral reforms, criminal justice system, police reforms, judicial reforms, the great Indian silence factory [Mainstream Media] and other such useless, frivolous, irrelevant and burning issues, click here….  & hereOxford India Policy Series [Decriminalization of Indian Politics]

Ending Gendercide: The Policy Pandora’s Box?

Ram Mashru

ImageIn 1985 Mary Anne Warren first coined the term ‘gendercide’, a neologism that refers to gender selective mass killing. In India gendercide takes the form of ‘femicide’, the systematic destruction of females from birth through to middle-age, and the statistically abnormal female mortality is the result of foeticide, infanticide, neglect, violence, murder and suicide.

The scale of the killing of female infants alone defies belief. Figures from the 2011 census reveal that the birth gender ratio for children aged 0-6 now stands at 914 girls born for every 1000 boys, down from 927:1000 in 2001 and significantly lower than the global average of 935-950:1000 (estimates vary). The aggregate figure masks vast regional disparities. In Haryana, the state with the 4th highest GDP, the ratio is 830:1000. In contrast Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, at 933:1000 has a birth gender ratio that betters the national average. Aside from these extreme cases, large disparities are most evident in richer, better-educated, relatively urbanized areas and among the roll call of offending states are Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab.

If not aborted as foetuses, two mechanisms explain the high mortality of girl-children. First, where food, medicine and shelter are scarce, the ‘parity effect’ refers to the practice of favouring sons. If daughters aren’t abandoned, this neglect leads to higher mortality from stunting and susceptibility to illness. Second, decreased fertility rates (now 2.7 per family) have increased the demand for sons. Girl children tend to survive if they are the first-born or if a brother precedes them. The ‘intensification effect’ describes the fate of subsequent girl-children, whose mortality increases in the desperation to produce a son.

The dropping fertility rate is partially the result of improved female education and employment. Foeticide among the urban, educated and affluent is facilitated by the proliferation of technology, the falling cost of illegal screenings and disregard for laws criminalizing gender selective abortions. Paradoxically therefore modernization – female empowerment and technology – has proved to be the problem, not the solution.

In addition, there exist a host of social and cultural drivers: patriarchy, misogyny and the economics of marriage. Sons are heirs, of both the family name and estate, perform funerary rights and provide high returns on parental investments. Having been looked after and educated, sons provide a source of labour, income, a (bride-accompanied) dowry and when parents grow old they function as informal care systems.  The opposite is the case for daughters. Custom dictates they leave the home and family upon marriage, and it is therefore the family gaining a bride that is the beneficiary of the costs of raising a daughter and amassing a dowry.

The policy imperative is self-evident. Comparisons between 2001 and 2011 census data show that widening birth gender ratios are creeping into newer areas. The tragedy of the mass elimination of women notwithstanding, the gender discrepancy gives rise to a number of damaging externalities. Violent and sexual crimes increase in populations with excess single young males, the shortage of marriageable women has increased human trafficking and sexual slavery (including minors), and has led to the establishment of a pan-south Asian bride buying industry. Men, unable to get married, now have higher suicide rates and perversely, rather than increasing the value and importance of women, their decreased number has tightened the patriarchal grip over their freedoms and sexuality. The urgency of the problem lies in the lag between normalizing the birth gender ratio and correcting these destructive consequences.

Culture and poor law enforcement are the obvious culprits, and in policy terms a supply and demand distinction is instructive.

On the supply side, factors that facilitate and enable gendercide include easily procured technology, cheap sex determinations and illegal abortions. Extensive legal prohibitions already exist. Sex determination tests were made illegal in 1994 (the PNDT Act was further strengthened in 2003), as was revealing the sex of the child in 1996. The fact that foeticide continues points to the need for more effective law enforcement, greater official accountability, swift punishment of offenders and stricter controls on access to technologies. Frustration with the official response, and cynicism towards the ‘soft’ NGO response, had led activists to take matters into their own hands. Networks of informers carrying out sting operations have led to the imprisonment of many mal-practising doctors. But over-enforcement or over-criminalization risks forcing gendercide underground, placing both mothers – who are often coerced – and children at greater risk.

As many commentators note, families determined enough to eliminate girls will always find a way. Supply side solutions therefore offer no guarantee that demand for gendercide – son preference, the economic logic of eliminating women and ritualism – would end. Gendercide is a practice in which men and women, of all ages, religions and socio-economic backgrounds are implicated. The policy challenge lies in effectively engaging with these diverse groups. Powerful efforts have been made to increase awareness, but combatting cultural norms is a no-guarantees, generational endeavor. Policy action is necessary immediately and South Korea demands attention as a success story.

In South Korea, high birth gender disparities have quickly been corrected, and the example highlights the importance of addressing underlying, macro causes. In addition to cultural crusades (the national ‘Love your Daughters’ media campaign) and regulating natal service providers, South Korea instituted a range of social service reforms. A three-pronged policy of improving education, changing the laws of inheritance and better welfare provision for the elderly removed many of the economic incentives for gendercide. In India attempts at reducing the costs of raising girl-children have been largely tokenistic: drop-off zones outside orphanages, tuition schemes and, in one case, presenting bicycles to families with newborn daughters. Addressing the causes of gendercide at a structural and societal level may be the missing piece of the policy puzzle. Unfortunately, India is a world leader in poor state service provision, and so optimism with India’s ability to replicate the South Korean example must be limited.

Ram Mashru is a freelance journalist and south Asia analyst. He specialises in the politics, human rights and international relations of India and has had articles published in a range of national and international publications. He recently obtained an MSc in Contemporary India (Area Studies), with distinction, from the University of Oxford and read for a BA in Law from the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @RamMashru

Decoding Election Manifestos: What are the policies for the future?

Ajit Phadnis & Vivek. V

ImageEvery Independence Day brings forth a fresh opportunity to revive the debate on our developmental path. Are we undertaking appropriate policies? Are the existing policies being implemented to the optimum? are two recurring questions. Often they are sought to be answered through a complex analysis of factual data and policy evaluations which are rich in insights, but tend to take-for-granted their inherent assumption that policies are created in a political vacuum.

In reality, most policy proposals are severely constrained within the bounds of political discourse, a term that typifies the conversations in political circles. Consider for instance, the case of three landmark policy initiatives of the last decade: the Right to Information, Right to education and Employment Guarantee programme. All of them graduated to policy only after sustained presence in political discourse. Even on few occasions where policy has preceded political discourse, like what happened with trade and investment liberalization, policy implementation has been successful only as far as it has aligned with the incumbent political discourse.

Future innovations in policy have quite clearly to find their parentage in the creativity of the political discourse that exists today. This means that to predict the future of policy, we need to understand the nature of our current political discourse. For instance, are the political conversations directed to explore new ways to enhance farm productivity. Or are they advocating for new tools to enable access to better healthcare? Are we finding new mechanisms to empower the disadvantaged? Or what are the new instruments to empower governance? To investigate this we consider the political discourse contained in the powerful but largely under-leveraged documents, the election manifestos of political parties.

For this study, we examined the election manifestos for the Karnataka State elections in 2013 presented by the three large political parties: the Indian National Congress (INC), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal- Secular (JD(S)). The reasons for choosing Karnataka are three-fold. Firstly, because the state had the most recently held elections, the last national elections, in comparison, took place more than four years ago. Secondly, both the prominent national parties INC and BJP presented manifestos here, which in a sense is a precursor to the national battle next year. Thirdly, Karnataka stands somewhere in the middle of the country in terms of its ranking on human development, but at the same time it has demonstrated its capability to be a pioneer for innovation in the  IT, Bio-Technology industries as well as many governance reforms. These attributes make the study of Karnataka election manifestos an engaging exercise.

Cross comparisons of manifestos suggests a broad congruence in the vision of development across the three political parties. While the slogans are carefully customized to align with their respective party ideologies, the Congress’s promise of ‘Clean Governance, able Leadership’, the BJP’s idea of ‘Progress’ and the JD(S)’s focus on ‘Equality & Justice’ do not look considerably different with regard to the issues they propose to address. All three manifestos are strong in their support for agriculture and farmers, promote a conducive climate for investments, promise better governance, envision access to better health and education, advocate for social justice and reflect a growing sense of environment consciousness. Their distinctiveness lies in the specific initiatives proposed to fulfill these common goals.

For the agricultural sector, all parties persist with their long-standing promises of assuring fair price for agricultural produce and supporting farmers in the purchase of agricultural inputs. But in addition the Congress and BJP manifestos also reflect a futuristic vision for agriculture through promotion of Organic farming. All three parties advocate for farming methods that are less water-intensive such as drip irrigation. Encouragement to Solar energy powered irrigation pump-sets are a new initiative reflected across parties.

For attracting industrial investments, the parties have gone beyond their traditional comfort-zones. The Congress advocates for the creation of a North-South corridor of industrial development with a thrust on expediting the process of land acquisition for industries, BJP talks about organizing bi-annual industrial meets and measures to encourage NRI investors. Even the predominantly rural based party, the JD(S), proposes to provide land for industries on ‘very cheap monthly lease basis’.

With regard to the much needed governance reforms, the Congress manifesto reflects a renewed thrust towards decentralization by ‘giving supremacy to Gram Sabhas’, the lowest tier of governance in rural India. Both the BJP and JD(S) mention about local empowerment in towns and cities through constitution of Ward Committees, which adds a new tier of governance at the local level. The subject of decentralization has all along attracted policy advocates, but this perhaps is the first time that such strongly worded proposals are seen in political discourse.

There are also some innovative propositions for health-care delivery. Congress proposes to extend health-care delivery to the doorsteps of individual homes by operating mobile hospital-cum ambulance services. Connecting all rural health centres with tele-medicine is the highlight of the BJP’s health initiatives. JD(S), meanwhile, advocates for a revolution in the health-care system by replicating the system of the National Health Service (NHS) of UK!

The manifestos also reflect a systemic approach to empower women. Both the BJP and JD(S) announce tax incentives to houses that are registered in the name of women. BJP goes a step further in mandating that all government granted houses are to be registered in the woman’s name.

A growing sense of environmental consciousness is visible. A rather concealed consensus exists among parties on promoting solar energy, which occupies a significant chunk of their energy proposals. In addition to this, are programmes for mandating energy audits of buildings, encouraging rain-water harvesting, recycling of water and instituting tax exemptions for electricity-powered vehicles.

These proposals demonstrate a sense of progressiveness in political discourse. One would like to see many of these manifesto promises graduate to policies in the near future. But given India’s checkered legacy with polices, it is only natural that our optimism be peppered with hints of healthy skepticism.

In essence, the manifestos throw light on the fact that our political parties can indeed be thinking institutions. Parties do look beyond their regional and national confines for best practices that can be locally accommodated. The emergence of parties such as Loksatta and Aam Aadmi is likely to further fuel the political discourse and generate a flood of new ideas. There is reason to be optimistic on this Independence Day and to raise a toast to the future of India!

Ajit Phadnis is a doctoral student at the Centre for Public Policy, Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore. Vivek V. is a public policy enthusiast.  

India: Democracy and Development are aligning better

Harsh Shrivastava

harshIn 66 years, free India has seen many triumphs and many more tribulations.  In its first few decades, India was seen as a great shining democracy, but also the poorest, most destitute nation.  In the last twenty years, our democratic credentials have strengthened, but the rapid rise of China keeps reminding us that autocracies can be more effective in delivering development than slow, plodding democratic India.

In 2013, we’re growing slower than before, but on this Independence Day, I’m heartened that our democratic prowess is itself contributing to the accelerating our development tempo, rather than being a hindrance.  If you ask Vedanta or POSCO or any other big company, they might differ.  However, if you ask each one of the 5,000 MLAs and MPs what keeps them awake at night—I’m sure that they will allow reply that it is their continuing failure to live up to the increasing expectations of their voters.

The mood in Delhi or Mumbai is despondent.  But in every one of our 28 (and counting) state capitals there’s choked traffic, new flyovers being built, new schemes being inaugurated, and a vibrant local media that’s holding the government to account.  In the last ten years, every big state election has been fought on the “development” plank.  (Except when Mamata defeated the Communists in West Bengal.)

For decades, democracy was seen as a cross to bear.  It was good, but … China was doing so much better.  But … India will never progress because of its “million mutinies”.  Most of the electorate votes only on the lines of caste or religion—so politicians are interested only in dividing the cake.

Today, all this has changed.  Yes, some voters still vote with their heart for “their” party out of allegiance to religion or community, but this is a declining share of the total vote.  More and more voters are voting with their head for parties that deliver.  Thus in all the BIMARU states, the last election or two has been fought on the “development” plank.  Even big, bad UP has voted for a young man who went beyond the tired rants of the past or the politics of complaint.

This politics of aspiration is playing itself out messily.  Free laptops are coming on top of free rice.  But this itself is a sign of change.  The proportion of space in party manifestos devoted to sops, freebies, and other development-related schemes is much more than the part devoted to mandir, masjid, or caste.  Once an MLA is elected, she or he is most concerned about the delivery of government services or the execution of new projects.

Yes, corruption is pervasive.  Since there’s more money, there’s more corruption, which has spread to panchayats and municipalities.  But corporators or MLAs or MPs know that they can be as corrupt as they can get away with, but if they want to be re-elected they have to deliver development.  And, our voters are getting smarter.  They just don’t want schools and hospitals (more capital spending), they want their teachers and doctors to deliver better outcomes (service delivery).

Private provisioning of infrastructure has also seen greater democratic acceptance.  Few now object to paying tolls on highways or to paying market prices for petrol.  The small, monthly increase in the price of diesel is a good example of solving a difficult development challenge—reducing subsidies—in a way that makes democratic sense.

Our federalism is also proving to be our strength.  Innovations in one state are being replicated in others.  Tamil Nadu’s mid-day meal scheme is the first.  But the way Tamil Nadu procures medicines for distribution to its hospitals and PHCs has also been emulated by many states.  Giving cycles to girls has now spread from Bihar to elsewhere.  Laws that guarantee timely delivery of public services have also been enacted in many states after having first been done in Madhya Pradesh.  Chhattisgarh’s improvements in PDS are being copied elsewhere.  Many cities are trying to do what Indore did in improving public bus services.  Delhi’s decision to distribute sanitary napkins to adolescent schoolgirls will also, I expect, be followed in other states.

Other successes have come from NGOs combining with governments and citizens to do specific tasks.  The successful pulse polio eradication program (pioneered in Delhi, replicated nationally) couldn’t have been possible without the cooperation of so many groups.  Akshayapatra is a shining example of using NGOs that use corporate efficiency techniques to deliver hot cooked food to more than 1.3 million children every day.  Started in Bangalore, it has spread to eight other states, because democratically elected governments invited the organization to their state realizing that it was better to have Akshayapatra (which is backed by a religious group) to do something that they could not do themselves.

Democracy will grow stronger and deeper in India as our elected representatives become more responsive to our needs.  This is catalyzing more development across more states for more communities through public, NGO, or private providers.  On our 66th Independence Day, let us celebrate this long-awaited coming together of two powerful forces, which were the twin goals of our freedom struggle.

Harsh Shrivastava is the CEO of the World Development Forum.  Before that he worked in India’s Planning Commission, helping manage the process of making the 12th Plan.  He’s also been Prime Minister Vajpayee’s deputy speechwriter. He has an MBA from IIM, Ahmedabad

Note from the Editor

APjAs India celebrates its 67th Independence Day, the usual stock taking and introspection of hits and misses will follow. In the life of a nation, a year is a short period especially when the elections (which were still two years away!) cause a sort of paralysis in its highest legislative body i.e. the Parliament.

However, this has been a year of extra-ordinary soul searching for India and its people. The gang-rape in Delhi on 16th December 2012 and the events that followed unleashed the long bottled up anger and frustration of not only Indian women but all those who feel insecure about the well-being of the women they are related to. Protests were organised, resignations were demanded and naming and shaming happened immediately after the incident-the usual. But what followed was unusual, the blaming slowly turned into deep introspection in certain sections of society. For the first time the debate moved beyond rape being a law and order issue to it being a deeper societal malice rooted in hypocrisies of modern India towards women rights, the unequal pace of change between different sections of society (amplified by remarks from several political and religious leaders) and the patriarchal conditioning of our otherwise invisible but always-at-work mindsets. The naming-shaming-blaming coupled with this churn of the Indian soul infused such alacrity in the state that the Anti- rape law was amended and fast track courts were set up within a few months.

Young Indians not only saw these changes through but also debated the specifics of the anti-rape bill. Some dinner table discussions centred on whether death penalty will prevent such crimes in future while other dinners were more tense with more difficult and personal conversations around what constitutes marital rape.

All this while, we were here at Oxford removed physically but not mentally from the turmoil in India. Indian students here discussed and debated this issue in every forum they had access to, whether it was an interactive session with Indian Members of Parliament, talks by women rights activists or in their socio-policy-development related academic courses. And also at dinner tables.

Speaking of Oxford, as any other journal/magazine worth its name, we will also take a stock of not only policy and development issues where we have come far but also those which we have been brushing aside since independence. The optimists will be surprised that there are any such long standing issues where we have had little or no progress in these 67 years! But to name a few- land acquisition, railways, securing women rights (still!), access to healthcare.. and the list could go on. Through this Independence day series, we have urged our writers to highlight the elements of this forgotten list which pops up its head every now and then but still manages to take us by surprise.

As for this year in the life of India, the deep tragedy in December jolted us but again reinforced the independent spirit of India. Not chained by paralysed politics, inaction or indifference, India marched on and moved a few steps forward on the issue of women’s security. The coming year will probably have a more distinguished place in the history book– it being an election year and seemingly the first one under the super-intense scrutiny of social media. However, this year should not be forgotten, as a shaken India struggled to lose itself and find itself again. Of course, the struggle for freedom never ends. It needs to be won again and again. And again.

Jai Hind!

Aparajita Bharti is pursuing Master of Public Policy at Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. Twitter: @BhartiAparajita

A Reformed Role Model: India, A Reluctant Rights Promoter

Ram Mashru

ImageWhen it comes to human rights, India is a paradoxical case. On the one hand she is praised as a regional standard-bearer, too-often celebrated as ‘the world’s largest democracy’ and applauded for protecting rights when her neighbours do not. On the other hand, the rights community is unanimous in its condemnation of India’s human rights record. Brutal oppression in Kashmir, state mandated ‘encounters’ (unlawful killings) and the violations of the land rights of tribals are but three of the recurring complaints made of India’s human rights protection.

The picture is more complicated in the realm of international relations. For many, including Salil Shetty the Secretary General of Amnesty International, India’s rising power status entails a greater responsibility to promote rights internationally. Similarly, in a recent high-profile piece Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director of Human Right Watch, urged India to do more to secure rights globally. Of course India should do as much as it can to encourage rights protection beyond its borders, but such conclusions fail to explain why India is a reluctant partner in the international rights protection effort. Perhaps the most instructive question is ‘is it in India’s interests to promote rights globally?’, and regrettably the answer is ‘no’. This unfortunate response can be explained by the politics of the developing world and India’s great power strategies.

Developing World Diplomacy

In light of the terrible rights record of the Raj it may seem puzzling that India has shied away from encouraging rights protection elsewhere. But this very history of imperialism has elevated state sovereignty to the status of a governing principle in the international relations of the developing world. The valorisation of sovereignty manifests in a reluctance to interfere in the domestic affairs of other nations. This commitment to both sovereignty and non-interference extends to international rights diplomacy and India, as Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran insisted, is not in the business of ‘exporting ideologies’.

Academics and activists must concede that conceptions of human rights differ across regions. The writings of Rajni Kothari – one of India’s leading thinkers and a former president of the country’s largest human rights organization – is replete with dismissals of civil and political rights as foreign ideals; ill-suited to India’s communitarian polity in which collective rights – emphasizing social, economic and cultural empowerment – are more important. Meenakshi Ganguly’s piece explains India’s foreign policy is reluctant to follow Western-led initiatives and prevailing understandings of human rights and international rights advocacy both fall into this category.

India’s Great Power Politics: Doing Things Differently

Perversely, despite India’s reluctance on the issue of rights promotion it enjoys a reputation as a regional exemplar: a functioning democracy with enviable rights standards. This contradiction can be reconciled by India’s efforts to be seen as a reformed role model, characterised by its non-imperialist foreign policy. The reformed approach is best evidenced by India’s reactive, not pro-active, democracy promotion strategy. In 2005 India, through making a  $10 million contribution, supported the establishment of the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF). But when speaking on UNDEF in 2006 Shyam Saran, India’s Foreign Secretary, said ‘we do not believe in the imposition of democracy. But if there is an interest in any country in our democratic experience…we are ready to share this’.

A reformed role model approach, when applied to human rights diplomacy, takes the form of a laissez-faire attitude to rights promotion.  Doing so is strategically prudent on several levels. First, it avoids embarrassing questions about India’s domestic rights record. Second it avoids the charge of hypocrisy that muscular rights promoters face, that of enforcing rights abroad and abrogating them at home. Third, the international relations of human rights are highly charged, and India’s light touch on the subject avoids offending or alienating potential strategic partners. Fourthly, reluctant rights promotion maximises India’s freedom of activity: by holding other nations to relaxed rights standards India grants itself equal licence to be unconstrained by rights concerns. These strategic freedoms, many of which are central to India’s great power project, combine to discourage India from using its growing international influence to encourage rights protection.


Certainly India’s potential to secure rights globally remains unfulfilled. But human rights – highly contentious norms, often maligned as ‘western’ ideologies – are difficult to reconcile with India’s effort to be a reformed global role model. As a player of the politics of the developing world and as an aspirant great power, India’s diplomatic priorities are underpinned by notions of state sovereignty, non-imperialism and strategic freedom, which each deliver foreign policy advantages that trump any benefits that might accrue from rights promotion.

As Meenakshi Ganguly laments, India’s refusal to promote rights is detrimental to the world’s marginalized and oppressed. But as Stephen Hopgood, a rights expert at SOAS, insists it is activists and not states will make the difference. Faith should therefore be placed instead in India’s social movements. The nationwide gender justice movement that emerged following the horrific Delhi gang rape and persistent popular protests against official corruption are testament to India’s capacity to mount pro-rights collective action. It is through setting this example that India can best lead in the effort to secure rights globally.

Ram Mashru is a freelance journalist and south Asia analyst. He specialises in the politics, human rights and international relations of India and has had articles published in a range of national and international publications. He recently obtained an MSc in Contemporary India (Area Studies), with distinction, from the University of Oxford and read for a BA in Law from the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @RamMashru

A version of this article was first published in the openGlobalRights section of openDemocracy.