Book Review: Sharma Writes History of Indian RTI Act

25 June 2015

By Gaia von Hatzfeldt

The author obtained her PhD in social anthropology from the University of Edinburgh, where she did research on anti-corruption social movements in India.

Sharma, Prashant (2015). Democracy and Transparency in the Indian State: The making of the Right to Information Act. Routledge: Abingdon (225 pages).

Access to information around the world is celebrated as one of the key indicators of a functioning democracy. It has become a basic tenet over the past decade that a crucial building block of democracy is an informed and active citizenry that is empowered to voice its interests and hold public officials to account. In India specifically, the Right to Information Act (RTI), enacted in 2005, is lauded as one of the most significant landmarks in the augmentation of democracy and as symbolising a crucial step towards participatory models of democracy. By making government information accessible to the public, the RTI is praised for being a powerful tool that enables citizens to actively participate in the governance of the country and to thereby strengthen and deepen democracy.

In his book Democracy and Transparency in the Indian State, Sharma provocatively and astutely questions this assumed correlation between the RTI and democratic processes. He argues that this association has its roots in a ‘dominant narrative’ that links the enactment of the RTI Act to a democratic grassroots struggle and which, by being reproduced and perpetuated in a wide array of settings, establishes as a given that the RTI Act is inherently democratic. However, according to Sharma, this popularly reiterated dominant narrative is in fact a ‘flattened’ account of the story of the RTI, in that “there is a singular lack of diversity of perspectives on that issue” (p. 5). The danger of the perpetuation of a flattened narrative is that only particular tropes are acknowledged, and thereby other major casual factors and broader formal political forces that were involved in the enactment of the RTI Act are ‘silenced’. The main objective of the book is thus to unpack these silences, and to thereby provide a more nuanced understanding of the processes that led up to the enactment of the RTI Act. The re-reading of the dominant narrative questions the extent to which the RTI has resulted in an actual deepening of democracy in India.

The Dominant Narrative of the RTI and Its Three Silences

Sharma begins his enticing and elegantly written book, by recounting the main events and trends of the dominant RTI narrative. According to this narrative, which Sharma delineates in Chapter 2 (‘The Dominant Narrative’), the emergence of the RTI Act in India is widely credited to the unwavering campaigning by a group of social activists in rural Rajasthan, who began their struggle against injustices at the local level, which in turn prompted them to lead a comprehensive national campaign demanding the legally enforceable right for citizens to access government-held information. The RTI movement, according to this dominant explanatory framework, was characterised both by the involvement of ‘ordinary’ citizens who exerted pressure onto the government from below and by an inclusive base that was able to overcome resistance from an entrenched bureaucracy. This emphasis on the participatory and democratic nature of the movement, enables the narrative to not only establish the success of the enactment of the RTI Act, but to furthermore celebrate its role in the overall deepening of democracy.

While Sharma notes that he does not doubt the facts of the narrative, he draws attention to three silences that emerge out of this singular reading of events and that destabilise the basis of the dominant narrative. In the following three chapters, Sharma unpacks these silences, largely by drawing on testimonies from ‘dissenting voices’: individuals who are in some form associated to the RTI movement, but whose own accounts diverge from the dominant narrative on the passage of the Act.

First Silence: The Advocates

The first silence (discussed in Chapter 3: ‘Digging up the grassroots’) involves the social profile of the principal actors that were involved in the struggle and the campaign for the RTI Act. What an uncovering of this silence indicates is that the leadership of the movement stems from an urban, middle-class, upper-caste and highly educated background, who enjoys exceptional access to material and non-material resources, as well as privileged entry to instrumental spaces of influence and power.

According to some of the dissenting voices cited by Sharma, the exclusive embedding by the movement leadership in such an elite social fraction, casts doubt on the authenticity of the grassroots struggle, with some dissenters going as far as suggesting that the grassroots has been “consciously amplified to take on mythical proportions, in order to claim credibility and legitimacy by a precious few” (p. 90). Moreover, the use of strategies, spaces and actions available exclusively to an elite fraction of society, leads Sharma and some of his dissenting voices to note the reproduction of social hierarchies so rampant in Indian society.

This reinforcement of structural inequalities calls into question the very process of democratic deepening so highly claimed by the dominant narrative. The uncovering of the silence of the social profile of the movement leaders thus jolts the claim that the RTI Act radically alters power structures in place.

Second Silence: The Role of the State

The second silence examined by Sharma (in Chapter 4: ‘Opening up the government’) is the role of the state in the processes leading up to the enactment of the RTI Act. The dominant narrative entirely downplays the influence of the government, portraying instead a picture of a resisting bureaucracy that finally succumbed to the pressure from citizen action.

However, Sharma digs up ample government evidence that contradicts this singular account of RTI as being a result of ‘pressure from below’, and instead, indicates that over the decades, demands for government transparency had been proactively pushed for through various means by progressive and reformist sections from within the government. Sharma shows that while there was initial resistance by the bureaucracy to the transparency of information – particularly on clauses that aimed to curtail their powers – this opposition dissipated as the civil service underwent concurrent structural changes. In the 1990s a series of affirmative action measures were implemented with the aim of democratizing the civil service through a process of reservations for members of under-represented groups. This led to structural changes in the social composition of the higher bureaucracy, with the gradual replacement of the upper-middle class elite that had traditionally made up the bureaucracy. Concurrently, in the early 1990s, India liberalized its economy through a range of reforms that opened up the market and expanded the role of private and foreign investment. The recently displaced bureaucrats, who had until then occupied positions in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy, began to take up positions in the private sector. No longer being so vested in the state, the resistance of the higher bureaucracy towards the RTI plummeted.

It is no coincidence, as Sharma points out, that the RTI Act does not cover the private sector in its ambit. With an overall climate of privatisation and the retreat of the state, the RTI Act found acceptance not only among bureaucrats, but also among a burgeoning middle class, particularly the mainstream media. The entwined relationship between the enactment of the RTI and the market-oriented context, leads Sharma to question, as with the previous silence, the transformative nature of the RTI Act as claimed in the dominant narrative.

Third Silence: External Influences

The final silence that Sharma teases out of the dominant RTI narrative is the influence of international processes on domestic events.

The widely reproduced narrative purports that the processes leading up the enactment of the RTI Act were entirely home-grown and were largely insulated from external forces. Such a version of accounts, according to Sharma, “has allowed the Indian experience to be produced as a rare bottom-up process in stark contrast to the ubiquitous top-down processes that have typically informed the growth of FoI legalisation across the world” (p. 166).

However, at closer inspection of various sources, as Sharma undertakes, it becomes apparent that international actors, experiences and trends did significantly influence the formulation of the RTI in India, and that both the government and civil society drew on FoI laws from other countries in drafting the RTI Act. It is no coincidence then that in 1990 only 14 countries had information laws, whereas by 2013 it had grown to 93 countries (p. 168). One explanation for this explosion in transparency laws around the world, according to Sharma, is the current neoliberal trend, wherein the idea of freeing government information and freeing the market go hand in hand. Accordingly, at around the same time that the demand for the RTI began to gain currency, India joined the WTO, which, in order to maximise predictability and profitability, seeks to establish a transparent and predictable international trade regime. This association of freedom of information and liberal capitalist democracy is antithetical to the very ideals held by the RTI activists, which would explain why they so vociferously denied international influences. Similarly, in order to build legitimacy and present itself as being genuinely responsive to the demands of the people, the government disassociated itself from international influences. In this manner, the dominant narrative of the RTI as being entirely home-grown, is, despite evidence suggesting the contrary, reproduced and reinforced.

Conclusion

What Sharma’s book does is to destabilize the dominant narrative that accounts the enactment of the RTI Act to a local bottom-up grassroots struggle, and that is therefore presented as constituting the marker of democracy, both in its process and its outcome. By laying bare alternate views, Sharma ultimately concludes that the process of democratic deepening has not been as substantive as claimed in the dominant narrative. This conclusion finds evidence in two main strands that run through the chapters of the book. First, the silences that emerge out of the dominant narrative reveal the fragility of the ideal of democratic deepening, because they show that the flattened account of the RTI disregards political compromises and the playing out of power – such as the social profiles of the leadership or the involvement of state and international forces – and thereby leads to a “depoliticised understanding of the process that has come to colonise the explanatory narrative” (p. 216). Second, while the dominant narrative professes that the RTI Act contributes to the deepening of democracy by altering the citizen-state relationship and by imparting citizens with more sovereignty, Sharma’s evidence questions this, as he shows that the location of power is no longer in the state but has shifted to the market. Private actors are increasingly influencing government policies, political processes and social norms, yet cannot be held accountable by citizens under RTI.

Sharma’s book provides a highly insightful new reading of the history of the enactment of the Right to Information Act, and makes an important analytical contribution by focusing on the ex-ante policy-making processes. By bringing forth dissenting voices and alternate records and sources, he builds up a larger analytical framework on ‘truth-making’, showing pertinently how this relates to power structures and the implications of this on processes of social change in a democratic context. Although questioning the dominant narrative is a worthwhile endeavour in bringing about more nuances to the significant and historic case of the RTI, occasionally Sharma’s critique comes across as somewhat relentless. Particularly when discussing the social profile of the leadership, the author is unreasonably critical, drawing parallels in the conclusion between the RTI movement and feudalism and oligarchy. While it is true that the movement leadership stems from an elite fraction of society, and while it is crucial that this be acknowledged in accounts of the enactment of the RTI Act, calling it feudalistic is disproportionate. After all, are not most social movements led by individuals from educated middle and upper class backgrounds? And are not many of these individuals characterised by an attempt to downplay their privileged class background in order to establish legitimacy to speak up for the under-represented? It is questionable whether the harshness of attacks on the leadership by Sharma outweighs the benefits gained from doing so.

Despite these and some other unsparing assessments, overall, Sharma provides valuable insights and provocations, not only on the RTI in India but also on the notion of access to information more broadly. His disquiet with the link between the neoliberal logic and the enactment of the RTI Act has a bearing on other contexts. If the demand for increased transparency of public information is indeed a product of liberal capitalist democracy, which goes hand in hand with the idea of freeing the market from the shackles of the state, then the assumed democratic nature of FoI legislation around the world calls to be questioned. In a world where state roles are progressively being privatised and outsourced, a legislation that aids citizens in holding public officials to account becomes less consequential. To what extent can democracy be deepened through access to information when public functions are increasingly performed by private entities that do not fall within the ambit of transparency laws?

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