Sunday 29 May 2011

Trust Indians with information, views (Sunday Guardian)

Niira Radia: A book on her has been stopped from distribution as it might affect her reputation.
irst the Supreme Court reminded the people of India that they cannot be trusted with information about the religious affiliation of a political personality — in the case under reference, Sonia Gandhi. Now the Delhi High Court has ruled that a book on Niira Radia by R.K. Anand (Close Encounters with Niira Radia, Har-Anand Publications) needs to be stopped from distribution, lest it affect her reputation, or what is left of it after tapes of her conversations with multiple powerful personalities became public. Clearly, the people of India are but children, who cannot be trusted with content as adult as religious affiliation or uncharitable views about a prominent personality.
The Election Commission of India would agree with the distinguished judges. That "watchdog of democracy" has thus far been manned only by former officials, none of whom ever fought even a college union election. Whether it is the CEC or the CVC, the presumption in India is the same as during the days when the British were in residence in the Viceregal Palace. That civil society in India is incapable of being in charge of its own affairs and therefore needs the tutelage of officialdom. Because she never thought to try for the IAS, an Arundhati Roy can never hope to become a member of the Human Rights Commission or an Anna Hazare the CVC. And as for the Election Commission, that organisation believes that only a "sanitised" campaign, such as the ones waged in North Korea, are dignified enough to merit approval. Our commissioners frown on "personal attacks" on political opponents during a campaign, as negative information about a candidate is clearly as unacceptable as any criticism of the Raj was during its heyday.Unless key institutions of the state get liberated from the thin layer of officialdom that has thus far constricted their functioning, and unless the people of India be given the same access to information as their counterparts in the US or in the UK (the two other countries with significant English-speaking populations), to call this country a democracy would be farcical. The higher an individual reaches along the system, the greater should be transparency about that person. Neither Ratan Tata nor Sonia Gandhi can claim the right to "privacy", until they recuse themselves from the institutions that they control.
Why Ratan Tata? Because modern India has seen a melting away of the silos that traditionally separated commerce from politics. These days, businesspersons become politicians and vice-versa, so synergistic is the link between two professions that ought to be made mutually exclusive under law. At least at the level of Union and State Cabinets, there needs to be a bar on entry of those who have business interests. Anil Ambani, for whatever reason, reacted properly when he resigned as a member of the Rajya Sabha, an institution around which far too many reports of auctions swirl around. Public service ought to be a high-risk occupation in India, exactly as it is in the US. Instead, we pat ourselves on the back when an Andimuthu Raja goes to prison, forgetting about the many others at his level who are as, or much more, guilty of graft. It is not only in telecom that we need some Radia tapes, but in petroleum, coal, defence and other ministries as well. Sadly, even the driblets of information that are in the public domain are looked on askance by those who for decades have (by reason of being paid by the state exchequer) seen themselves as several cuts above the rest of us.
Not just transparency, but punishment needs to be proportionate to the level of the individual in the governance system. To claim that India is a country where the "rule of law" applies is to indulge in fantasy. Those with influence and resources have an immunity from substantive punishment that would be the envy of their counterparts in more civilised countries. What needs to be done is to ensure that the higher an individual, the greater should be the quantum of punishment. Rather than the present system, where a "joint secretary and above" are given protection even from inquiries, this segment needs to be exposed to the elements. And as for Niira Radia, this columnist, to his chagrin, has never met her. However, any individual who simultaneously wins the trust of Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata must be worthy of admiration. Ms Radia needs to seek to make India more like her other home, the UK, with respect to the flow of information. Some months ago, an account of this columnist's mother was published by a Canadian author who had visited her a half-dozen times over the years. With extreme understatement, it can be said that The Love Queen of Malabar (by Merrily Weisbord) is not a flattering book. We Orientals use language as poetry, weaving it in myriad ways and changing its texture and meaning, while Occidentals are more Teutonic, taking words literally. Ms Weisbord is very definitely Occidental. She has interpreted Amma's postures and verbal sallies with a literalness that casts an individual not known for lack of courage as the helpless victim of a brutal man, her husband. As those who knew Kamala Das a tad better than Ms Weisbord can testify, the relationship between my parents was loving and close. Indeed, a woman as independent as Amma would have walked out of her marriage in seconds, were that not the case. We, her sons, were advised to go the Radia route, and to seek an injunction against the book. We refused, because even though what has been said in it bears little relation to the reality of a beautiful relationship between a strong, very protective man and his wilful spouse, Ms Weisbord has the right to publicly express her views. Coming from the family of the writer who wrote one of the first books to be banned in "free" India (Aubrey Menen, and his Rama Retold), we could not react in any other way but to ignore the Weisbord book. Hopefully, those who seek to gag and to block will accept that in a democracy, this seems a better way to go.

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