"The critical assumption of democracy is information, that everyone has equal access to information. Right to Information (RTI) Act is not merely a law but is very critical to the foundation of democracy. It is not just a law but the architecture of our constitution and is a vital link. A lot of our problems can be solved if we are just transparent in our functioning!" says Yogendra Yadav, founding president of Swaraj Abhiyan and one of India's leading psephologists.
He was speaking at a new RTI series called "Conversations on RTI with Shailesh Gandhi", launched by Moneylife Foundation.
"If transparency seeps into all sections of the society, we can automatically be a better democracy. Transparency is not just a process but a mindset. Unfortunately, the information commissioners' and the court's role as guardians of the RTI Act have not been formed. So the promise of RTI hasn't quite been delivered," he added.
Mr Yadav is also associated with the farmers' agitation going on for the past year against the three farm laws.
"The Union government repeatedly claims that it held multiple consultations with around 93 lakh farmers and stakeholders before passing the three controversial farm laws, but they cannot give you a list of even 93 farmers. In December 2020, RTI activist Anjali Bharadwaj wrote to every possible government authority seeking information on the consultation, including location and minutes of the meeting. And you know what the answer was? No record! The same government that says they have consulted 93 lakh farmers no less, they cannot even give you a list of 93 stakeholders," he says.
Political parties in India do not want to come under the ambit of the RTI Act. There have been multiple movements asking political parties to be brought under the purview of the RTI. A central information commission (CIC) judgement ordered six political parties to come under RTI.
Joining the conversation, Mr Gandhi said, "While they have not opposed it in court, they lawlessly disobey the rules and most other parties in the country have pushed back against this move. Swaraj Abhiyan, of which Mr Yadav happens to be the founding president, is the only party in the country which has suo moto offered to come under RTI. They have even appointed a public information officer (PIO) to answer RTI queries."
Commenting on this, Mr Yadav says," You give us a lot of credit, but honestly, the simple thing is, when the six parties refused to follow the Commission's order, many of us were there on the streets protesting against the parties. This was in early 2012 or so, and I remember we were protesting in Jantar Mantar on why political parties do not obey this order of the CIC. After that, I was involved in a group that founded a political party, so how can I not obey this? It would be utterly ridiculous, utterly duplicitous. So I do not think we deserve that much credit, but I am glad my colleagues remembered that."
Mr Yadav also shared a provision from the constitution of Swaraj India "This is article 7th of our constitution, and it simply says, there shall be a right to information in the party available to party members as well as the general public so that anyone can ask me questions about the functioning of Swaraj India and I am obliged to respond to that."
Sharing an instance where they received an RTI, Mr Yadav said, "While we are not that important to be flooded with RTI questions, I do remember, last year we received an RTI predictably from someone not happy with our party and they wanted to find out what we have done with sexual harassment issues. That is the other thing our party has, an internal complaints committee (ICC). So we made available every single document, we, of course, get some routine enquiries as well, but we have done that."
RTI is an essential tool in a democracy. Asking Mr Yadav about his thoughts, Mr Gandhi pointed out, "Without RTI, a democracy cannot exist".
"We all say we love democracy. We all almost worship democracy. We live in an age where you cannot speak against democracy. Worshipping can mean two things. One is the idea of democracy, the values of democracy and that human beings can make their own decision. But the second is a mechanism that says you hold elections every four to five years to elect representatives, and there is a procedure for voting. We somehow expect the second to deliver the first. But why do we expect this humanly designed mechanism to deliver somehow all the beautiful things that we call values of democracy?" the founder of Swaraj Abhiyan says.
According to Mr Yadav, who TV viewers fondly remember as a psephologist during the general elections, consumers and citizens are kings, and they are the ones who take decisions. But in reality, he says, the whole business depends on certain assumptions.
"The critical assumption is information, access to it, and everyone has equal access to making their information known to others. RTI is not merely a law passed by the Union of India. It is critical to the very foundation of democracy in a sense that RTI is a law and critical to the architecture of our constitution. It is the missing link that has been supplied. It has not worked as well as it could have, but it is an absolutely vital link in our democracy. Simply because we have elections every five years does not make us a democracy."
Asking Mr Yadav's thoughts on the usefulness of RTI for movements, Mr Gandhi asked: "What can movements do and how will it benefit them?"
He said, "One of the most important things that have happened which I noticed, Shailesh ji you would probably notice it from one end, and I notice it from the other, is a fusion of RTI activism with ground activism. Earlier, when the RTI movement just began, there were divides between the RTI activist and the other activists, who used to do memorandums and they used to have contempt for RTI activists, ye toh ghar beite kaam karte hay, AC room mein kaam karte hay (They sit at home and work, they sit in AC rooms and work and not on the ground level)."
"Over the last few years, I see there is a bit of fusion. Both need each other, and before you go for dharna pradarshan (protests), you need information that can be obtained by filing RTIs. Another thing I see which I do not know if it is your experience, is when people to go government offices and say, sir ye information chaiye, (Sir I need this information) some of the PIO refuse. But they say, aap aisa karo, aap RTI daal do and mein aapko information de dunga (you do one thing, file an RTI application and I will give you the information)."
When asked about Indian democracy and the RTI Act 10 years in the future, Mr Yadav concluded on a sombre note, "The future of RTI is inextricably linked to the future of our democracy. I wish I could say nice things, but honestly, Shailesh Ji, I am very concerned. Let us face it; the first republic, which was inaugurated in 1950, was over in 2019. Some could say 2014, and some say 2019. The second republic is yet to be born."
A Q&A followed the conversation with participants. Sucheta Dalal founder Trustee of Moneylife Foundation, asked, "Today we live in times where we have an unprecedented amount of for want of better word transparency. Information is easily available; you have Google, giving you everything; every individual can publish and be heard if he wants to. How information is spread is also different. At the same time, you also have extreme polarisation, indoctrination and closing of minds. Would you like to share your views on that?"
Mr Yadav responded, "There is a lot of information, but you need the right frame to receive, capture, and categorise them. Information by itself is of no use. It will be like classified ads in newspapers that tell you nothing, and you need frames. But something happened in our country. Those frames did not come from academic thinking, unlike in the west. When I look at politics today, what strikes me is not merely the fact that there are no ethics and morals. That is all right. That is happening in politics all over the world at different points in time. What strikes me is the sheer lack of political judgment of the top leaders. Some of our top political leaders have an abysmal judgment of politics, and I suspect that their judgment is so poor because the frame through which they could make judgments has collapsed.
"So the broad point I was making is that, yes, the frames have collapsed. The quality of political judgment has declined and therefore, what we need are people who can make sense of the world of politics. This is what is needed; this is what is so desperately missing right now."
You can watch the entire session here: