The Radia recordings and WikiLeaks confirm two basic, related political insights—one global, the other more local—that have sharpened over the past decade.
The first is about the nature of power. Power in the modern world rests as much on information and its control as it does on weaponry or treasure: Besides the Seventh Fleet and Wall Street, it is the networked data server, buried deep in cyberspace, that is a repository of power. And it is the rogue memory stick, the renegade photographic image, or the on-screen financial rumour, that can acquire viral velocity and at once puncture the complacencies of markets as well as the strategies of states. In this crucial sense, what were believed to be the conventional markers of power—military might, financial muscle— remain premised for their effectiveness on legitimacy, on their sustained credibility in the realm of public opinion or of markets. If that dissipates, so too does effective power. It’s a lesson that the US has learned the hard way over the past decade; and it’s a lesson that any would-be aspirant powers need to grasp early.
The second concerns our own political and economic trend lines. Almost 20 years ago, India embarked on what was described as a liberalization of the economy, supposedly opening it up to private energy and breaking the statist monopoly in which it had been entrapped. Economic liberalization, superimposed upon India’s more long-standing political democratization, have together changed in significant ways the social backgrounds of the country’s elites, and have vastly inflated the scale of wealth now in private hands. But it is by now equally plain that these political and economic processes, dynamic in themselves, have done less to change the essential structures—ones that ensure a sharp divide between elites and the rest. The political and economic opening that has occurred has been highly selective—with narrow entry points, still controlled and largely exclusive.
We remain a society beholden to “gatekeepers”. At the top of the new caste order are those who can fix “access”: to the durbars of politicians, the file-bestrewn offices of bureaucrats, the Vitra-fitted boardrooms and salons of CEOs, the media networks. As such, the changes of recent decades have merely enhanced the stakes, potential and necessity for corruption.
Unsurprisingly, we are at present simply goggle-eyed over the unfolding details of the Radia recordings and the Raja rip-off of the national purse. But to revel in the exorbitance of information, to fetishize the thousands of hours of tapes and pages of transcripts, can induce analytical paralysis. It’s an illusion to think that one is addressing the problem of corruption by making a spectacle of it. Certainly, to pursue and secure some high-profile convictions is important. But even that, while necessary, is not sufficient. We aren’t going to be able to address the problem by punishing a few people in court. Nor is this species of corruption special to particular political parties or governments—in that sense, the Opposition, rather than finger-wagging and stymieing Parliament, would do better to practise a little self-analysis, and notice how corruption is an activity that spreads across the political horizon: how it has become the one great subject of cross-party, pan-Indian agreement. Regret in public, indulge in private.
Information junkies: (above) Niira Radia (Hindustan Times); and supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange protest his arrest in Madrid (AP).
We’ll need to look deeper, to analyse what the information tells us about the workings of Indian capitalism and democracy—and of the supposed instruments of scrutiny that are supposed to keep our democracy honest.
The effect of the Raja and Radia show has been to deflate two myths our elites have dined out on. The first is that India has entered a new age of entrepreneurial capitalism, independent of the state; the second is we are a vibrant democracy, with an energetic, critical free press (“India: the world’s fastest growing democracy”: remember Davos?).
Fallen men: (from top to bottom)Former Union telecom minister A. Raja (Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times); members of the Opposition demand a probe into the telecom scandal (Mustafa Quraishi/AP); and Satyam founder Ramalinga Raju (Bharath Sai/Mint).
We had better face this sweet self-image a little more frankly, in the hope we might move away a little from self-delusion and perhaps towards self-knowledge. This will require, first, grasping the nature of Indian capitalism. The telecom sector was the blue-skinned god boy of Indian private enterprise, the fastest growing such sector in the world. But it turns out that entry into India’s breathless new economy remains, after all, channelled through the same inertial and rotten structures that propped up the old economy.
All that’s changed is that we have a new “gatekeeper” caste that dominates the new Indian capitalism: Along with elected politicians, and career and retired bureaucrats, now we have PR and corporate lobbyists, business leaders themselves, and—more apparent than ever before—the media professionals. The fact is that one of democracy’s vital pillars, an independent media, has buckled. The curse of “access” is destroying critical and independent media—and will cripple our democracy.
In that sense, the media has become the fullest, direst symptom of a world built on and spun around by “access”. India’s new economy is itself an “access economy”—where national resources, whether land and water or the airwaves and knowledge, as well as resources like private capital, can be exploited only by those who have steady access to the gatekeepers: those who hold state office, and those who can influence them. “Access journalism”, beholden to money and power in ways that run the spectrum from social glass-clinking to “treaty” arrangements that hang editorial and news pages out “To Let”, asks no real questions of this world. It opinionates (an always harmless pastime, even if critical)—it never investigates. It is a world of unnamed sources, not undeniable facts. The habits of “access” are inherently corrupting, none more so than for journalists: It destroys autonomy of inquiry and thought.
The leaks of state papers and of private conversations underline the vulnerability of power in the face of information—in ways that are at once a caution and a hope for us.
A caution, because it should help to concentrate our minds on how to sustain India’s own legitimacy in the era of global Wiki public opinion. It’s a task that will need imagination and active effort. Public corruption, as in India’s telecom sector, or private fraud, as with Satyam, affect the credibility of India’s economic story. And it can start to hurt the country’s global legitimacy.
A hope, because these recent events may finally provoke a full debate over the informational regime that, with little self-awareness, we are sliding into. It would be a debate over the claims of state secrecy, of citizens’ privacy, and of corporate opacity—a debate that draws out their intimate if contradictory relationship, and it’s one we’ll need to face as we move deeper into the age of terrorism, corruption and unique identification (UID) numbers, each of which are in the first instance challenges of accumulating, protecting and diffusing information.
In that necessary debate, we’ll need to acknowledge that there are no easy certitudes in what is fundamentally political rather than purely ethical territory. Three elements, contradictory to one another in their shape and purposes, define the modern informational order: Two of them, the state and the individual citizen, are purposive agents; the third, the market, is an instrument. Modern states are occupationally committed to amassing information about all they rule or seek to rule, while enshrouding in secrecy any information they have accumulated. The state, along with often closely allied corporate entities (banks, telecom companies, medical institutions) extracts and concentrates information—of both commercial and political value.
Individual citizens, on the other hand, jealously protect their own privacy, as they pursue interests beyond the glare of state or society. Intervening between state and citizen, enveloping both of them, is the market and its analogues: networks that distribute information, whatever it may be (celebrity photographs, state documents, Facebook intimacies) to whomever has an expressed preference for it.
What should be the informational contract that defines this triangular relation, and who should determine its terms and enforcement? How much should and can state and citizen, as well as citizens themselves, know about each other?
The nature of what is public and private information, what is legitimate data for the state to hold and guard, and what is dangerously intrusive or wilfully obfuscating when in its possession, will (and should) always be contestable. In that sense, it may be unrealistic to expect any stable contract to emerge.
But, in an era when states seek to ever widen the privileges of secrecy, when corporate and private wealth remains largely unscrutinized, and where citizens press for the right to information while guarding their privacy, the issue of who needs to know, and on what basis, will be increasingly drawn into contention—contentions that will need to be anchored by some criteria. In some cases, the criteria are functionally justifiable (for example, where financial and social services need to be delivered); but in others they are discretionary. Who should determine such criteria, adjudicate disputes? The state or an independent regulator? Our jurisprudence on such matters is weak, our public debate thin. We are going to need to better manage our attitude to information and its regulation, public and private, not least because this will shape India’s legitimacy, both domestic and global.
Also Read | Sunil’s previous Lounge columns
Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently working on a new book, India in Search of Wealth and Power. Write to him at email@example.com