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Ministers need a new oath

Ministers need a new oath
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First Published: Sun, Jul 24 2011. 09 44 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Jul 24 2011. 09 44 PM IST
Among the many opportunities missed by the recent reshuffle in the Union cabinet, the most significant, in terms of long-term impact, is the failure to push the transparency agenda.
In an environment where every day a new scam is emerging, public commitment to transparent and ethical decision making would have gone a long way in announcing the government’s intention and resolve to lift governance from its present-day low.
This was the right time to make a genuine, even if a trifle symbolic, beginning to make new ministers (and old ones) affirm or take oath of transparency and integrity rather than the archaic oath of secrecy.
That none in the government’s think tank and spin doctors even thought that it would be a great gesture, suggests that they have not internalized the mood of civil society and the urgent need for transparency. Perhaps, it also reflects the lack of creativity among those running the show and confirms the government’s mental senescence.
It makes immense sense to change the form of oath after the Right to Information (RTI) Act. After affirming allegiance to the Constitution, a minister affirms or swears that he or she will not directly or indirectly communicate or reveal to any person or persons any matter which shall be brought under his/her consideration or shall become known to him/her as a minister. This oath—which is the illegitimate offspring of the arcane Official Secrets Act (OSA) of 1923—negates the letter and spirit of the RTI Act. More importantly, it impairs the transparency agenda. Far from an affirmation to transparency, the system enjoins upon ministers to become secretive.
It may be argued, quite correctly, that the OSA per se doesn’t hinder the dissemination of information. But the operative point is that when its interpretation and implementation is left to civil servants—who are not only trained to conceal and not reveal, but also are bound to the existing Civil Services Conduct Rules (yet to be amended for the state governments) and their Manual of Office Procedures (which, by the way, has still not been amended) where the emphasis and intent is to withhold information—it becomes what it is. These rules encourage the tendency to classify even the most mundane and unwarranted matters as classified.
These arcane oaths and procedures that suited the British administrative exigencies need to be replaced with the current requirements of a democratic set-up. To be sure, the forms of oath are not independent of the situation in which these are stipulated or taken.
For instance, in the US, the 14-word oath to fulfil the constitutional requirement has been changed many times in response to the prevailing situation. The outbreak of the civil war transformed the routine act of oath taking into one of enormous significance. Later, the oath was revised again to become the “Ironclad Test Oath”. Those who swore falsely would be prosecuted for perjury and forever debarred from holding any political position.
The prevailing situation, that has seen a complete erosion of public trust in governance and its institutions, is reason enough for the oath of secrecy, to be replaced by a new more relevant oath of transparency in governance. The oath of transparency in governance should make two commitments to the people of India; first, it must commit them to institutionalizing the systems of transparent administration in India. Second, it must specifically commit the individual to the full and robust implementation of the RTI, which even in its whittled down form, is a key to administrative transparency and accountable governance.
Obviously, the change in the oath will require an amendment of the Schedule 3 of the Constitution, under which ministers take the oath of secrecy while assuming office. This can be easily done in the ensuing session to ensure unhindered flow of information to the public for a transparent corruption-free governance not just a regime. It is important to make the distinction between transparent governments and governance. It is the latter that needs to be institutionalized. For that more needs to be done in terms of system building.
It is not just the oath of secrecy, the Constitution is replete with provisions that legitimize and reinforce an obsolete and nefarious regime of administrative secrecy, that is incompatible with a democratic polity.
The many “immunitarian” provisions of the Constitution which guarantee a special manner of protection to the permanent civil service of the colonial style (Article 311), privileges of legislators (Article 105 for MPs and Article 194 for MLAs), give a free hand to these functionaries without being directly accountable. This contributes indirectly but substantially to the maintenance of a regime built upon secrecy, red tape, corruption and alienation from the people.
The need is to rid the Constitution of its colonial self and adapted to the needs of the increasingly educated and empowered civil society. Government must build systems and process to communicate rather than conceal the process of decision making from its citizens.
Haseeb A. Drabu is an economist, and writes on monetary and macroeconomic matters from the perspective of policy and practice. Comment are welcome at haseeb@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Jul 24 2011. 09 44 PM IST