‘National secrecy’ is against national security

‘National secrecy’ is against national security

By M.D. Nalapat | 28 February, 2015
PM Modi needs to fling away secrecy from the portals of government, so much so that secrecy becomes the rarest of rare exceptions to the norm of transparency.

The welcome exposure of moles within key ministries is leading to calls for a clampdown on information flow, when in fact the opposite is called for. When in difficulties about finding out a plausible excuse for concealing information, the official establishment usually reaches for the "national security in danger" argument. This is usually effective, especially when accompanied by a battery of overwhelmingly sedentary "hawks" warning on television of a correlation between release of information and terror attacks, when in fact the reverse is the truth. Where the public is given access to information, the citizenry become more conscious of the dangers facing them, and therefore better able to recognise early signs of trouble. The first defence against a terror attack is an alert citizenry on the lookout for telltale signs of troublemaking, and such a state of readiness cannot be maintained if there remains a blackout of information. Indeed, it is the opaque nature of decision-making in India, with its corollary of colonial-era discretion, that has led to both a continuation of the fetish of "official secrecy" as well as to efforts at getting access to information. Given the pervasive nature of graft in this country, it is by far the lesser evil to go in for transparency than to continue with a secrecy which only assists the dishonest to continue skewing decisions for personal gain.

The argument that such a release of data is what enables terrorists and other security threats to access the same is false, for the reason that these latter usually have their own channels of information, incidentally, sources which thrive on the absence of transparency. Over the decades, and despite the stifling grip of a colonial-era governance system on the populace, education and awareness have grown, making nonsense of the conviction within the bureaucracy that "ordinary" (i.e. non-official) citizens cannot be trusted with information. Such logic runs counter to the fact that many officials have themselves fallen prey to the blandishments proffered by external and internal threats to public order and national security.

Other major powers have devised a governance system where the permanent officialdom is leavened by entrants from fields outside government, such as academics or business. Given that decisions of import daily get taken about such fields, to exclude their practitioners from an inside say in the processing of decisions is to ensure that sub-optimal decisions continue to get taken, out of ignorance of the ground situation in cases where corruption is absent. Even ministries such as Home, HRD and Defence expect generalist administrators to master intricacies within days of joining, when what is needed is a mix of such personnel as well as recruits from outside the civil service.

In times past, British colonial masters saw only themselves as being fit to run the higher civil service. What is needed is to introduce "natives" (i.e. outside specialists) into its ranks rather than simply relying on modern-day "Britishers" (i.e. career civil servants).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was able to attract tens of millions of youthful voters in May 2014 because of his stance that civil society would — finally — be given pre-eminence over India's colonial-era administrative apparatus.

This was best exemplified in his "Minimum Government" pledge. However, it would appear that Modi's message has yet to seep through to those appointed by him, most of whom are from the same "Delhi establishment" crowd that the vote for him was a protest against.

As yet, civil society hardly figures in Team Modi, barring a few. What is needed is for the Prime Minister to reconfigure the civil service into a 21st century machine by bringing into its portals specialists in place of generalists, which has already happened in departments such as Space and Atomic Energy.

The consequence of conventionality in staffing is a system which is still only 20% Modi, 40% Vajpayee and 40% Manmohan Singh, whereas voters seek a 100% Modi sarkar.

Whether it be the defence of Section 66A of the IT Act or the intensification of regulations and controls by ministries such as Home, HRD and Finance, what we are still seeing is a continuation of "maximum government", that seeks to dominate and micro-manage rather than step aside and give the people of India the space needed for excellence, the way they get in countries such as the US.

Prime Minister Modi, now that he is nearing the close of a year in his present office, needs to create 21st century institutions in place of the 18th and 19th century constructs preserved from the British period and expanded upon by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors, barring Narasimha Rao and to an extent Atal Behari Vajpayee. The national security team put in place by Modi needs to move away from a colonial police mindset and accept that blocking an activity both constrains overall growth, as well as results in such activity manifesting itself in clandestine — and far more toxic — ways. The Prime Minister needs to fling away the curtain of secrecy from the portals of government, so much so that secrecy becomes the rarest of rare exceptions to the norm of transparency.

Those who insist on secrecy damage rather than promote national security, by perpetuating a culture in which corruption thrives.

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