Incorporating People’s Will in Governance

PM Modi’s convoy. PHOTO: IANS

[First published in Seminar journal in the ‘India at 75’ special issue in Aug. 2022]

ON a December evening in 2021, as I was leaving the premises of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in Teen Murti Marg, New Delhi, the guard stopped me at the gate saying that the prime minister’s motorcade was about to pass. The roads had to be cleared as part of a security protocol. The Indian prime minister was journeying back to his residence, a few blocks from the library, in his shiny new Mercedes Maybach 650, along with police convoys and security personnel, as we waited inside the gates in silence.

I had spent most of December conducting archival research at the library for my doctoral thesis. When I boarded the Uber taxi to head home that evening, the driver apologized for his delay as he was held up on the other side of the road. The cabbie complained about not being able to relieve himself behind a bush as a policeman had caught him, asking him to get back into the car quickly because the PM was about to pass by any moment!

During the rest of the trip, we chatted about how the common man often felt insignificant before the ruling powers who displayed their power and pelf unabashedly. At that point, I asked my driver if he knew anything about the right to information movement – the topic of my research – and how the Right to Information (RTI) Act was meant to empower common citizens to hold the ruling class to account. He knew very little about the law, or the history of the struggle behind it, but asked a question that has remained with me ever since: ‘Did it make any difference at all?’

In this essay, I approach that question by elaborating on the formative phase of the right to information movement, when a disclosure policy was prepared in India with civil society organizations playing an influential role in the process. I use the files and records of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan1 held in the NMML archives to narrate how a people-centred vision of governance was created and sustained within the movement, which eventually found its way into the political mainstream. In keeping with the overall theme of the symposium, I unpack the idea of ‘the people’ here by visibilizing a specific constituency of the Indian people and demonstrating how the actors concerned mobilized the idea of a rights-bearing citizen to incorporate the will of the people into the framework of the RTI Act.

Read and download the full essay here.

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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