Clifford Stoll is an American astronomer with an Einstein hairdo. He is also one of the world’s foremost digital forensics experts. There is very little Stoll wouldn’t know about information; its precious nature and power. His maxim, “data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom”, is one that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may want to adopt. On the seventh year of the Right to Information Act, Singh warned that RTI “should not be only about criticising, ridiculing, and running down public authorities. RTI should be more about promoting transparency and accountability, spreading information and awareness, and empowering the citizen”.
The Right to Information Act of 2005 is UPA’s trophy legislation. The mission was to polish the government’s image by increasing transparency and checking corruption. The intention was good in absolute moral terms, but the naiveté is puzzling; after all, butterflies don’t emerge from Pandora’s boxes. With RTI having come back to bite the UPA, is Singh regretting that the worms in the rotten apple are coming out one by one, exposing the rotten core of the government?
Some questions for the Prime Minister.
Is exposing the loot and wrongdoings of Suresh Kalmadi, his cohorts, various contractors and government officials—in which RTI and the Central Information Commission played an important role—running down public authorities and kayoing transparency?
Is laying bare the loot of national resources like 2G spectrum that sent two powerful DMK luminaries—Raja and Kanimozhi—to jail not spreading information and empowering the Indian?
Is exposing the fact through RTI that the national son-in-law Robert Vadra is exempted from security check at airports, simply because he married Priyanka Gandhi—who is neither a public figure nor holds any government position—ridiculing the government?
As Stoll said, data is not information but RTI answers make it so. This is what the Congress party and the Prime Minister are afraid of. Coming out of political hiding last month after the ruling family approved his new reform drive, it seems that along with reforms, Singh, too, has acquired teeth. The government is fighting back, trying to sabotage the very Act that was a showpiece achievement.
In politics, all actions are not motivated by an honest desire to get to the bottom of things. Hence, RTI has also become a political weapon. The government now resorts to sophistry to thwart the politicisation of RTI , such as Modi’s question on Sonia’s foreign travel bills. In the case of 2G, the government has fought a grim battle to contain information. RTI queries were blocked using Section 8 of the RTI Act and procedural rules governing the Joint Parliamentary Committee under the excuse that the material sought was “information which would impede the process of investigation”. Even applications from MPs were struck down. Is the government regretting its own legislation? It seems so, going by Singh’s defensive rhetoric. RTI activists in small towns and villages have been under threat—from murderous politicians and resources mafia who have killed many activists for seeking out venality in local government such as manipulating pension records or illegal mining. Courts are making life difficult for information commissions, with many orders being stayed.
It’s no secret that governments are paranoid. Such is the nature of power. Power is the greatest temptation, when succumbed to, yields immense, illicit harvests. Power is also the sibling of corruption. All democratically elected governments exist on the goodwill of the mango people. Concealment is usually construed as admission of guilt. By preventing access to it, the government hides its own knowledge of what goes on in the political subworld. For the UPA, however, this knowledge does not include an understanding of political and electoral forensics—the final wisdom that nothing in politics stays hidden for long.