Democracies remain democratic as long as they scrupulously adhere to two indispensable attributes — transparency and accountability, which are inextricably interlinked. Accountability is enabled by transparency. Democracy recognises that states, by their very nature, tend to be predatory, seeking to accumulate power at the expense of the people — thus the important principle in a democracy of holding the state accountable to the people and not the other way round. The state and its functionaries, whether in a democracy or an autocracy, will always seek to avoid being accountable for their actions to the people in whose interest they claim to function. They cannot be expected to turn the spotlight on their own violations of law, regulations, and norms of good governance. Hence the need for the state to submit itself to independent scrutiny from the outside. Only transparency enables people to hold state functionaries accountable for their actions.
National security rests on transparency and accountability because they enable constant review and remedy and early warning about emerging threats and challenges.
In democracies, there are constitutionally empowered institutions which seek to impose transparency and accountability on the state. An independent judiciary is the most important of such safeguards. The elected Parliament itself has bipartisan committees which have the power to seek information from the state and its agencies and evaluate their functioning in enhancing public interest. Even if a strong political opposition does not always exist to keep a ruling political dispensation on its toes, the parliamentary committees have a tradition of subjecting the state and its institutions to scrutiny. Other institutions also play important roles, such as the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. But it is not just independent institutions which ensure that the state is both transparent and accountable. An independent media and a vibrant civil society may be even more important in holding the state to account.
The holding of free and fair elections at regular intervals is undoubtedly an indispensable component of enforcing accountability on the holders of state power. But in the absence of other safeguards, it may become difficult to sustain electoral exercise alone as a guarantor of democracy. Any ruling political dispensation, having harnessed the instruments of a predatory state, will be inherently inclined to subvert democratic elections when these threaten to undermine its continuance in power. So, elections are not enough unless backed by an array of strong institutions and arrangements.
India remains a vibrant democracy. One may celebrate it as the ‘mother of democracy’, as PM Modi has done on numerous occasions. The key attributes of a democracy are mostly in place in India and have matured in the 75 years of democratic functioning, including the successful holding of free and fair elections. But there are warning signals.
One, the discourse around democracy itself is changing. This is reflected in the effort to de-link democracy from liberalism. This is a trend visible in other democracies too. Liberalism is centred on individual rights and the responsibility of the state to uphold these rights. Community-based entitlements and injunctions cannot be used to abridge individual rights. The Constitution is a testament to liberal democracy and if we swear by it, we cannot, at the same time, denigrate liberal values. Liberalism evolved historically in diminishing the power of the state vis-à-vis the individual. Eviscerating democracy of liberalism opens the door to its subversion. There is no such thing as an ‘illiberal democracy’.
Two, the inevitable outcome of weakening individual freedoms is the growing precedence accorded to community-based entitlements and the reluctance to uphold the rights of individual citizens against the claims of community jurisdiction, despite the latter having no legal sanction. The ‘hurt sentiments’ of any communal group are usually enough for the state to restrict individual rights. Witness the forcible closing of shops selling meat during Ram Navami in numerous locations. Once the state intervenes extra-judicially in these matters without challenge, it can begin to do so in other matters too. If the civil society is enfeebled and media is muted, challenging the state’s arbitrary exercise of authority becomes more difficult.
Three, there is growing opacity of state functioning. We have a resurfacing of the controversy over the Pulwama incident which took place on the eve of the 2019 elections. There have been similar controversies about other serious national security emergencies. The last occasion when the state turned the spotlight on itself was after the 1999 Kargil War, with the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee setting up the Kargil Review Committee under the chairmanship of K Subrahmanyam, a former Secretary of Defence Production and a highly respected security analyst. The report was made public and uncovered many infirmities in our national security management and resulted in several critical reforms. This admirable display of state transparency went missing in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008. The then government opted for an internal inquiry, knowing that those who were responsible for major lapses were unlikely to indict themselves.
Ironically, it is the national security argument which is often adduced by the state to maintain a cloak of opacity over government decision-making. In a democracy, national security is as much the business of people as it is of the state and it is necessary for the state to apprise people of the nature and scale of national security threats and the measures being taken to meet them. It is not possible to judge the state’s performance in upholding national security if there is denial of access to information relating to this domain.
The future of Indian democracy rests on transparency and accountability. National security rests on them because they enable constant review and remedy and early warning about emerging threats and challenges. They are neglected at our own peril.
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