The day it gets sworn in, a government gets judged on the basis of performance rather than promise. What may be termed the “Narendra Modi Voting Dividend” was the belief that a government headed by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat would not only frame policies that represented a welcome break from the past but actually implement them. The people of India are much wiser than the pundits, and know that it is not going to be an easy romp for India to become a middle income country from its present low level of per capita income. What they seek are the complementary virtues of transparency and accountability. The more the information available to the public about the workings of decision-makers in government, the lower the likelihood that they will revert to the old practice of placing personal interest above that of public interest. Now that PM Modi has settled into his new post, it is expected that transparency in governance will be substantially enhanced, especially through the use of the internet. If Digital India is to evolve into a reality, a culture of honest disclosure is needed, even of matters that do not reflect well on the government. The Right to Information Act began to be strangulated during the final years of PM Manmohan Singh’s decade in office. This was achieved by the expedient of former and present officials having a monopoly on positions within the tribunes, including at the Central level. Most incongruously, an individual who had spent much of his life in the Intelligence Bureau (which is a bastion of secrecy) was asked by the previous government to hold a key position for operationalising the RTI Act. Is it any wonder that several queries remain unanswered or replied to in a manner that is misleading? In his address at the Digital India launch, PM Modi touched upon the need for transparency and accountability, and he is right.
Despite the strong knowledge base of the Indian mind, thus far the country has remained a laggard in the field of research and applications of technological and scientific advancements. The primary blame for this lies with Jawaharlal Nehru, who had a visceral dislike of anything private, and ensured that research remained a government monopoly. Had the DRDO forged meaningful partnerships with domestic private sector entities, it would not have become the laughing stock that it is. Not only are much of its products far below the best international standards, it takes much more time than taken by other comparable countries to develop and operationalise military hardware. China is now self-sufficient in over 80% of its critical defence needs, while India makes do with less than 20%. Should there be a conflict, which leads to supply lines getting disrupted, or should supplier countries refuse to make available spares and other equipment, this country would be in dire straits. Such sloth is the result of the cult of secrecy, which envelops so much of the functioning of government. This lack of transparency provides an effective cover for officials and their political masters who are incompetent or dishonest or both. Together with the physical infrastructure needed to convert PM Modi’s promise of a Digital India into reality, what is essential is for the government to remove obstacles to transparency, and to ensure that wrongdoers are held accountable in a manner not seen during the period in office of previous PMs.