The conventional wisdom about accountability, forged in academia, is that it is possible to hold someone to account only when the governors are separated from the governed, there is a compact between them on acceptable behaviour and there is a punishment prescribed if that compact is transgressed. In the governance sphere, it means that those leading a government, elected by the people through a democratic process, stand to lose their position and power if they do not meet the assurances on governance that they make to the people.
However, since elections are few and far between, there is a need to construct various other forms of continuous enforcement of accountability by which the government and its agents can be punished even as their failures come to the fore. Thus, we have a universe of laws that crystallise assurances to the people, punishments are prescribed for failure to deliver on these, and a system of regulators and courts is established to adjudicate on failures of accountability and impose appropriate punishments. I teach this stuff in diverse classrooms, but I am not sure now, whether I believe in what I teach.
How strong is this system? Does it actually work in practice?
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The origin of the myth
Twenty years ago, when India had completed a decade of economic liberalisation, several new-age civil society individuals appeared on the scene. These were not the usual jholawalas with pro-left ideological stances leading mass movements. These were people with deep pockets filled with money gleaned from their capitalist ventures. They now wished to invest in social improvement, to ‘give back’ to society whatever it was they wished to give. They came with dreams of galvanising the sectors in which they chose to work; ranging from improvement of urban services, to promoting people’s participation, environmental protection, women’s rights and conservation of natural resources.
We will request the government to do this and do that, they said. And they did it. Governments opened their doors with indulgence, and sat in silence as impressive presentations flashed by in darkened rooms, peppered with the latest in management jargon. Yes, we completely agree with you, said the government in reply, we will do all that you suggest.
Everybody was happy.
What would you do if the government does not do what you think should be done? That was not the time to ask that question; so, it was rarely asked. If some annoying individual wished to be a party pooper, they were told that in the fullness of time, a way would be found to ensure that the government stands by its assurances.
Five years later, the signs that the party would begin to end, began to surface. The roads did not improve, the lakes burned. The ward committees were not constituted. Trees were cut, even as environment protection committees were constituted. Civil society had to think about the next strategies of escalation.
And think and act they did, to their credit.
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It started with RTI applications. When the government began to reveal information, it was counted as a great success. Press conferences were convened and the government was damned. More presentations were made, this time in seminars and conclaves organised by media houses. Government officers came – particularly the nice ones – and they nodded their heads and said they would do what they ought to do.
That didn’t work. The government began to ignore RTI applications. Activists went in appeal. The government did not replace retiring Information Commissioners. Appeals began to pile up.
It was time for Plan B.
We held hands, we formed human chains. Against tree cutting, against steel bridges. Politicians anxious to join in the fun drove past in their SUVs, posing for selfies. There were Twitter storms and Facebook live shows. We held ‘Meet the Electorate’ shows before the elections. Candidates attended these with their fawning followers and made polite speeches. Non-performers faced a few embarrassing questions about failed promises, but some not-so-polite bouncers ensured that the proceedings did not go out of hand. Non-performers still won the elections that followed.
Plan B did not work.
So, onto plan C: Public Interest Litigation.
PILs seemed to work, in a few cases. Courts, keen to elbow their way into the executive space, gave directions on lake rejuvenation, on mining, on metropolitan planning, on participatory governance and on garbage clearance. Committees were constituted by courts and they began to monitor how their directions were implemented. A few contempt of court proceedings, usually directed at a conveniently identified scapegoat in the government, did keep the hope alive.
Yet, one swallow does not make a summer.
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Who won? Not civil society
The government knew it was only a matter of time before ennui would set in. As predicted, the courts began to tire. Civil society capitalists pushed, shoved, and then gave up.
Where do we all stand, in today’s post-accountability world? The government has won, civil society has lost. Most of the latter are now content with being represented on government committees, usually to endorse what the government has already decided to do. The courts tenaciously hold onto their executive opportunities, so a few monitoring committees in a few sectors continue. The RTI is dead. For form’s sake, the entire accountability universe is not buried; it is allowed to flail its limbs occasionally. A little democracy, not too much of it, is a much-needed tonic for an autocracy.
T.R. Raghunandan is a retired IAS officer and currently Advisor, Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)