TAP conundrum

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Image Courtesy: Mint

In the first ten days of February I was in the US where I attended a few events around the theme of Transparency Accountability, Participation and Good Governance. The World Bank has been promoting anti-corruption measures among governments across the world asking them to adopt transparency and accountability as a means of promoting good governance. The Transparency and Accountability field is based on the assumption that if there is greater transparency in the governance process, corrupt practices will become difficult to sustain. According to the website of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives, one of the leading organisations working on this issue globally these measures “enable citizens to have a say about issues that matter to them and a  chance to influence decision-making and hold those making decisions to account.” Transparency and accountability together allow citizens to ask questions and seek answers from their public officials and representatives around the decisions they take. This is expected to reduce corrupt practices and increase effective and efficient governance. Globally there are a number of efforts like the Open Government Partnership, Extractive Industries Transparency Index and the Open Budget Index which are mechanisms to foster such transparency in the governance process.

While I hold that transparency are accountability are important values in governance, this neat causal chain has never convinced me. In India the Right to Information law is a very important tool for citizen’s access to public information and was obtained through a tough struggle. It is also under threat under successive political and bureaucratic regimes as they seek to dilute its provisions. Information about government schemes are now routinely ‘published’ either on boards or on websites, and each department has a ‘Public Information Officer’ or PIO who is charged with meeting the responsibilities of disclosure of information. However despite this law and provisions, not many citizens are aware of these and not many seek redress compared to the numbers distressed by official obfuscation and denial of entitlements. Personally I wonder how much corruption has been reduced by these transparency and accountability measures alone.

As a person involved in the field I have held that ‘participation’ the third alphabet in the alphabet soup is extremely important as it defines the levels of awareness and desire for accountability of citizens from the government. The Right to Information act in many ways came about through many public hearings (jansunwai) that were conducted across the country to check on leakage in Panchayat (local government) funds. Today having public hearings is part of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). However holding such hearings is not common practice or happens notionally in many places places. It is only when the citizens are ‘empowered’ to ask questions through facilitating organisations do these mechanisms work. If there is ‘fear’ among citizens in asking questions from people in positions of power then no amount of laws or schemes are sufficient for the marginalized citizens to ask questions of people in positions of authority who they see as ‘benefactors’ rather than ‘representatives’.

On returning home an interesting Transparency Accountability Partnership conundrum has hit me squarely in the face. A couple of weeks ago Ms Jayalalitha, the charismatic Chief Minister of the State of Tamil Nadu died after a brief illness. The party replaced her with a senior cabinet colleague but sycophants in the party as well as the rank and file of the party desired that her close personal associate be nominated to the Chief Minister’s post. This lady is a member of the party but is not an elected member of the state parliament. Very quickly she was elected head of the party and a tussle for the Chief Ministership ensued, and the party split. In all this process a writ was filed in the Supreme Court of India to activate a dormant case of ‘disproportionate assets’ or corruption against this lady and the late Ms Jayalalitha. In the true democratic spirit this case had kept in abeyance /put in the freezer while Ms Jayalalitha was CM. The Supreme Court was prompt to make its verdict known and upheld charges on corruption against Ms Sasikala, Ms Jayalalitha’s associate and she is now not only in jail, but can’t contest elections for the next ten years.

Till this point the story seems to follow an expected trajectory of the corruption and governance narrative, where the corrupt are being nailed and jailed and removed from governance process. But the story continued. According to recent reports Ms Sasikala continues to rein supreme in the heart of the party and its millions of supporters. So she before going to jail she anointed her choice as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. And her choice has been supported by thousands of the party loyalists and millions of supporters across the state.

It is important to note that this is not the story of a poor backward state in India. Tamil Nadu is among the top states in India in terms of its economic and social status. It is one of the best governed states in the country and ranks high in the list of Economic Freedom rankings. Not surprisingly it home to a wide range of industries. Earlier Ms Jayalalitha had a slew of corruption charges against her, but this did not stop her from standing for elections, winning and becoming Chief Minister. Now her associate, who owes her popularity only through her close association with Ms Jayalalitha also receives the citizen’s support and despite going to jail, successfully selects her associate as Chief Minister. Clearly knowledge of corruption in this case does not seem to restrict popular political choice. But the people of Tamil Nadu are known as proactive voters and usually do not repeat the same government twice. Governance in Tamil Nadu can also be said to be strong and efficient. Tamil Nadu is also a leader in digital governance among Indian states, which can buttress a claim to more transparency. So clearly we have a TAP conundrum here where corruption coexists with high levels of popular support within strong and smart governance embedded in a democratic framework. I wonder what the mandarins of the World Bank have to say about a situation like this?

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Abhijit Das is a doctor with training in obstetrics, paediatrics and public health with thirty years’ experience in clinical work, training, research and policy advocacy. He is Director of Centre for Health and Social Justice (www.chsj.org) a health policy research and advocacy organization in India and Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Global Health, University of Washington, Seattle, USA.