21 February 2014
Op-ed on NDTV.com
With India poised for the upcoming general elections, 149.36 million first-time voters (according to the 2011 census) will make choices that will shape the country's destiny for the next five years. There was never a more interesting time to be a first-time Indian voter - or a tougher time to be a long-time Indian politician.
All of us who aspire to public office face an electorate that is certainly more aware and more anxious than ever before. One of the reasons people are more aware is the transparency that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has systematically brought into our politics. And that very transparency represents the best hope for effectively addressing the anxieties of 21st century India.
The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) both reflects and embodies the Indian public's desire for honest, capable and credible government. To suggest that we do not have it yet is a reflection of our country's realities, and not merely of the government's failings, real and imagined. As a society, not only do we need corruption-free governance, we need ethical conduct in business, bureaucracy, and even our homes. It is to achieve this that the UPA has taken unprecedented measures to bring transparency into our often opaque systems of governance.
"Exhibit A" in the UPA's transparency narrative is the Right to Information Act, 2005, which has allowed every Indian citizen to demand information from government about how public resources are being spent. RTI is not an isolated example.
In 2012, the Public Procurement Bill was introduced in Parliament to eliminate unscrupulous practices in the acquisition of public goods and services. To safeguard and encourage persons who disclose the misuse of power in public offices, the government introduced the Whistle-Blowers Protection Bill of 2011 in Parliament.
By pushing for tax transparency and information exchange agreements (TIEA) and facilitating international consensus at the G-20 summit for taking action against tax havens, the government has also taken an important step in ensuring transparency beyond borders.
The joint drafting committee for the Lokpal and Lokayukta, comprising Shri Anna Hazare, members from civil society and members from the opposition, is an example of the UPA government's commitment to transparent governance. The final Lokpal and Lokayukta Act of 2013 enjoyed Anna's approval. And extending the ambit to the judiciary, the government introduced the Judicial Accountability Bill in 2010 that requires judges to declare their assets, and has provisions for addressing misconduct. A transparent judiciary is vital for consistency and for public acceptance of its application of the law.
The UPA's own experience has been that there is a very fine balancing act between pushing for transparent governance and safeguarding freedom of expression and the due process of debate. Transparent governance requires transparent politics. A real danger would be signing up for transparency but ending up with an autocracy or a Big Brother government overlooking every move.
While transparency in the delivery of governance is essential, transparency in the electoral process is a necessary prerequisite. The Indian National Congress (INC) is the only party that has acknowledged this by initiating an unprecedented experiment in Indian politics -- organising primaries within the party. While the process is still in its trial stage, it is a world away from the back-room deals in which other parties issue their tickets.
One other party has attempted parallel reforms. While there are concerns over its use of funding from outside the country, the rise of AAP has shown that it is possible to use new media to transparently fund a political campaign. The Congress Party gladly encourages other parties to emulate its efforts at electoral transparency.
Governance for the 21st century must be citizen-centric, with a service-oriented model that facilitates growth and development. With the National e-governance plan, the UPA has initiated a drastic transformation in this direction. We now have a network of more than 100,000 common service centres for the electronic delivery of public services to citizens in rural areas. Software tools and fonts from 22 Indian languages in 24 states ensure widespread access.
This is a record we are proud to stand on. Of course there are miles to go, and building on the UPA's initiatives in the previous two terms, even more can be done in the next term to deliver the governance we all aspire for. But whoever wins the next elections - and we hope it will be us again -- must deepen the commitment to accountability and transparency that the UPA has demonstrated in the last decade. Anything less would be a betrayal of the Indian people.