People’s movements have for decades questioned the elitism of representative democracy, and pioneered alternative forms of direct democracy. Nevertheless, the media and many others persist in projecting them through the lens of conventional electoral politics: for example, by focusing on a single leader, preferably middle-class, and giving him or her undue recognition for the accomplishments of an entire movement. When some prominent ‘leaders’ transition from social movements to mainstream electoral politics, the collective efforts and ethos that fuel social movements tend to be forgotten, overlooked, or even deliberately ignored.
In an article titled, “Ideals without ideas” (The Telegraph, March 3, 2014), S.L. Rao analyses the ideology of the Aam Aadmi Party and its prominent face, Arvind Kejriwal. In the course of the analysis, Rao attributes credit to Arvind Kejriwal “for his effectiveness in enabling the most significant change to Indian democracy since Independence. This is the right to information.” This claim is factually inaccurate. Kejriwal, and many of his lesser-known colleagues in Parivartan joined the RTI movement in the early 2000s, after they started using Delhi’s RTI Act. More importantly, singling out Kejriwal grossly undermines the contributions of the many people who supported and made possible the enactment of a strong and robust Right to Information Act, 2005. It is important for the future of these ideas, that we understand their past.
The Right to Information campaign, as we know it, began in the early 1990s in rural Rajasthan through the struggles of peasants and workers of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan — a non-party political organization fighting on issues of land, minimum wages and delivery of basic services to the poor. They understood that they could not access their services and entitlements without access to the documents that contained proof of corruption and inefficiency, which resulted in the abrogation of their most basic rights. They connected the Right to Know to the Right to Live and changed the discourse of the Right to Information, not only in India, but also across the world. It was women like Sushila — she had only studied up to the 4th standard — who, in 1995, coined the slogan that now symbolizes the Right to Information movement all over India: “Hamara Paisa, Hamara Hisab [Our Money, Our Accounts]”. The late Mohan Ram, a Dalit who had never been to school, chronicled the early years of struggle through a song he composed and popularized explaining the relationship between information, power and democracy. Lal Singh who joined the MKSS to fight a feudal landlord and ensure land re-distribution in his village, articulated the Right to Information as redistribution of power. In 2000, he famously explained to a group of hostile civil servants in Jaipur that the Right to Information might undermine conventional centres of power, but would save democracy and the very existence of a country like India, which had to contend with so many competing priorities.
In 1996, the prominent Hindi journalist, Prabhash Joshi, came to support the 40-day MKSS dharna in Beawar, Rajasthan, and picked up and popularized another defining slogan of this new discourse by calling his next column in Jan Satta, “Hum Jaanenge, Hum Jeeyenge [We will Know, We will Live]”. This connection between a strong grassroots movement and a simple, yet powerful democratic idea was carried forward extremely effectively by a range of supporters who did not come from political parties but exercised influence in the political mainstream. Other eminent journalists like Nikhil Chakravarty, Ajit Bhattacharjea, Kuldip Nayar and Prakash Kardaley also supported this movement, not just as journalists, but as activists. They said that the struggle by peasants and workers is actually a struggle for all Indians, and is a life and livelihood issue more for journalists than anyone else. Stalwarts from other sectors also began to underscore the importance of the Right to Information in various spheres of public life. Eminent bureaucrats like S.R. Sankaran, Harsh Mander, and N.C Saxena demonstrated the contribution that can be made by people who understand the machinations possible within an opaque and unaccountable system. Leading advocates and defenders of civil liberties, K.G. Kannabiran and Prashant Bhushan, helped establish the legal and conceptual perspective of openness and accountability that the Right to Information would bring to democratic practice. Social movements helped bring together an eclectic group of committed people and campaigners who enriched the Right to Information campaign with expertise from each of their own areas — environment, agriculture, politics, human rights and the rights of marginalized sections of society — including Dalits, tribals, and women.
Prominent individuals and organizations in the NCPRI were joined by a growing number of RTI advocates in many states in campaigning for strong legislation and implementation at the state and national levels. The decade-long campaign established the fundamental principles of what would later become law, and demonstrated that sustained pressure from outside mainstream political parties could even bring about legislation that people wanted but the establishment consistently resisted. It also drew vital support from politicians from different parties. No single party, organization or individual could have brought about “the most significant change to Indian democracy since Independence” that Mr. Rao talks about. It is, therefore, clear that a shift as fundamental as the Right to Information could not have taken place from within a party or in fact within the electoral system alone.
Even after the enactment of the act in 2005, the NCPRI and the growing tribe of RTI activists have continued to prevent aggressive efforts by the State, the bureaucracy and political leaders to weaken the law through amendments in 2006, 2009 and recently in 2013. The RTI has been creatively used by millions of individuals and many groups. Its capacity to shake and undermine powerful vested interests is underscored by the large number of lethal attacks on RTI users. Over 30 RTI users have been killed since 2011, bringing new meaning to the concept of whistleblowing, not just in India but across the world. The continued engagement with elected representatives by social activists and campaigns continued in the success of the Lokpal and Whistleblower Protection laws, which have been passed by Parliament. However, despite a parliamentary promise, the grievance redress law has lapsed without enactment.
In this ongoing struggle for making the Indian State accountable to its citizens, the role and contribution of many prominent individuals like Aruna Roy, Shekhar Singh, Nikhil Dey, Anna Hazare, Maja Daruwallah, Shailesh Gandhi and Anjali Bhardwaj are well known. However, much less acknowledged is the collective role of many unnamed individuals and groups who have enabled this fundamental change. If we do not keep the contribution of this collective process in mind, we will not be able to properly evaluate the new efforts emerging in electoral politics.