Sunday 19 April 2015

PM Modi, tear down this wall (Sunday Guardian)

M.D Nalapat is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.

TRAI must not seek to become a trade union for some businesses but serve as a catalyst for 900 million Indians, now without viable internet access.

In 12 June 1987, President Ronald Reagan of the United States stood at the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin and asked USSR President Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev to "tear down this wall", referring to the Berlin Wall that had been erected in 1961 to stanch the steady flow of East Germans migrating to their western neighbour. The Soviet leader did not immediately oblige, but less than four years later, made the wall irrelevant, by ensuring that military force was not used to roll back the popular movement within the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) against the Communist rulers.
The seeds of Soviet collapse were planted less by Gorbachev, but by Leonid Brezhnev, who during 1964-82 supervised a bureaucratic mode of governance, which placed procedure over performance. Although the economy of the USSR — not to mention its relations with key states such as the US — got damaged because of the diversion of nearly a third of the national treasure towards military purposes, the risk-averse, indeed cowardly, Soviet leadership of the time refused to make use of such strength, except in cases where resistance was practically absent, as for example in the suppression of Czech protests in 1968. Had, for example, attacks been launched on Peshawar and other staging areas for the Mujahideen during the decade-long conflict between them and the Soviet armed forces in Afghanistan, there is little doubt that Islamabad would have pulled back from its role of serving as the hub of the insurgency. Only the conversion of a non-conventional war of attrition into a conventional conflict would have transformed the dynamics of the Afghanistan war, but this was never attempted.
Interestingly, the bureaucracy-heavy decision-making process in India kept this country from responding to the Pakistan army's "death by a thousand cuts" strategy with tactics designed to inflict disproportionate pain to GHQ at Rawalpindi. Unless the military in Pakistan has the collective mentality of a suicide bomber, there is no way that they would respond to a Kashmir-specific attack by the Indian Air Force and by missile units on Mujahideen concentrations in PoK. And they would be aware that any conventional attack on military installations in Kashmir or elsewhere would be met with immediate retaliation on corresponding facilities across the border.
It is the same bureaucratic way of thinking and reacting that has so far prevented successive elected governments in what is regarded as a democratic and independent country — India — from ensuring the same level of access to information as is present in countries such as the US. Unlike the case in more complete democracies, top level appointments in India get made in a manner opaque to all except the few making them, whether such authorities be from the judicial or the executive branch. Were there to be a system of public hearings before deciding on nominations to Supreme Court or High Court judges, or to constitutional posts such as the CVC, the CEC and the CAG, citizens across the country would have an opportunity to weigh in on the same, and make public whatever views and information they have on each candidate.
Sadly, this is a country whose leaders retained the colonial system (and in large part even the style) of governance, rather than ensuring the putting in place of mechanisms more congruent with democratic rights and national needs.
Just as Gorbachev could not have staved off the inevitable for more than a few years even should he have done a Brezhnev, those elected to office in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls must know that the people of India are no longer prepared to remain stifled by colonial appurtenances, and that it was precisely this desire for change that brought so many of them into the BJP kitty, especially as the party was led by a charismatic leader who promised change from the past. It is now time for Narendra Modi to deliver on that promise by ensuring that the processes of governance be made transparent, and that the brainpower of those other than officials be brought to bear when policy gets decided. Should such a transformation not take place within the coming months, it will not be long before public protest ensures that it does.
While national security, both in general and in specifics, is certainly important, yet this must be the exception and not made the excuse to enforce secrecy as the norm. Both in the way in which wings of the government sought to make permanent such monstrosities as Section 66A of the IT Act and in the manner by which TRAI is seeking to be a trade union for some businesses rather than serve as the catalyst for the 900 million people in India, now without viable internet access to go online, it is clear that relatively few in the Modi government are in step with the Prime Minister's 21st century vision. He will need to make the tearing down of the wall of opacity and secrecy infecting the processes of governance a priority. The Supreme Court needs to ensure that the practice of setting up historical figures as icons, criticism of whom is forbidden, gets discontinued. The freedom to offend is core to liberty, so long as such language causes no physical harm. Broadband of the mind needs to be developed as much as broadband access to the internet. The colonial walls blocking freedoms and constraining thought are too many for this country to claim it is anchored in the 21st century. Prime Minister Modi, tear down such walls!

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