Why governments must be transparent

Tags: Op-ed
Why governments must be transparent
AP
THE X FACTOR: A file photo of Aam Aadmi Party president Arvind Kejriwal seeking the blessings of a voter during one of his campaign rallies ahead of the Delhi state assembly elections
The German Green Party traces its roots to the student movements in the 1960s. It identified four pillars as the foundational statement of its mission: (1) Ecological wisdom (2) Social justice (3) Grassroots democracy and (4) Non-violence. The party has changed the political discourse in Germany over the years. All the mainstream parties have had to engage on the four issues evangelised by the Green Party and declare their stance.

India’s Aam Admi Party (AAP), which germinated out of seeds of the anti-corruption movement, has disrupted the traditional way of running a political campaign, raising funds and winning votes. It won 28 seats in Delhi compared with BJP’s 32 and Congress’s 8 — making a stunning debut as a start-up political party.

As Infosys chief N R Narayana Murthy said, “What Kejriwal has brought to the table is that if one has a few powerful messages, you can win elections with very little money. You can get a party ready quite quickly to have a stunning debut. He has also given hope and confidence to a lot of people across various cities of the country to say we too can participate in the political process.” Amartya Sen observed that, the Aam Admi Party’s rise is an “important departure” in politics which has challenged the established institutions.

Whether AAP can form a government or not, or whether it can emerge as a national party is not really the turning point of India’s politics. The real impact of AAP is that all mainstream parties have woken up and smelt the coffee. Transparency has climbed up the agenda and every political party must take a stand now or face the wrath of people in the ballot box.

In the age of social media, vigilant press and the internet, you may be a hero today and a villain tomorrow if you play the wrong cards. The recent developments in Japan are a case in point. The popularity of prime minister Shinzo Abe in his second stint was a matter of surprise for Japan watchers. He has been garnering popular support because of the bold economic policies dubbed Abenomics that is designed to pull out Japan from its low growth mode for years and deflation. But to sustain his popularity, he must combine good economics with good governance.

On December 6, Abe slammed an unpopular law through the Diet (Japan’s bicameral legislature) which strengthens the protection of “state secrets” and imposes painful punishments upon those who are accused of leaking them. Human rights activists and the media fear that these draconian laws may be misused to gag criticisms of the opposition and curb freedom of speech and expression. Immediately following the hasty manner in which the bill was forced through the process, Abe’s approval fell by over ten percentage points to below 50 per cent. A large group of prominent intellectuals and academics in Japan have called the law, “the largest ever danger to democracy in post-war Japan”. About 80 per cent of the Japanese polled by an opinion poll agency want the law amended or completely repealed.

Secrecy is not politically correct anymore. The outcome of an interesting tussle between Uncle Sam and Switzerland may change what the corrupt and the criminals do with their dirty money. The Swiss banks are required to say whether they will sign-up on a Voluntary Disclosure Programme drafted by the US justice department. Essentially if a bank signs up, it will receive a one-time amnesty for handling untaxed money of Americans in exchange for fines. If the banks do not sign up, they may be closed down like Wegelin or may face hefty fines like the UBS which settled by paying $780 million as fines and disclosing information about 4,700 US account holders. If the US succeeds, other governments (and why not India?) may begin to clamour for similar agreements. The amount of offshore money managed by Switzerland is in the region of $2 trillion — an amount far greater than India’s GDP!

There is clamour for regulating the prying eyes of the state. The US president is facing the heat too. The eight largest companies which design and create technologies for the internet: Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL have written an open letter to Barack Obama and the Congress urging the lawmakers and politicians to pause: “The undersigned companies believe that it is time for the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information. Consistent with established global norms of free expression and privacy and with the goals of ensuring that government law enforcement and intelligence efforts are rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight, we hereby call on governments to endorse the following principles and enact reforms that would put these principles into action.”

Edward Snowden’s revelations of how America’s national security agency (NSA) collects private data has sparked this debate among not just intellectuals, but also among technology companies who fear that people might not use technology which they do not trust. The simple message to government all over the planet seems to be this: Do not become the dreaded Big Brother of the movie Nineteen Eighty Four. Instead, stay open, stay transparent.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)

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