An Informed Citizenry is the Bulwark of a Democracy

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), one of the Founding Fathers of the US and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence is believed to have written that “an informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy.” Bulwark — a defensive wall — is against something or someone. I don’t know the context in which Jefferson wrote that (or even if he did write it at all) but I’d like to think what he meant was that an informed citizenry protects democracy from the possible tyranny of the government.

Ideally, a democratic government is not an enemy of the people but all real governments tend to degenerate over time because of two factors. First, governments have the power to coerce. And second, the government is comprised not of saints but imperfect people just like the rest of us. Lord Acton’s observation that power tends to corrupt comes into force and the dry rot of tyranny begins. People in positions of power tend to become corrupt and abuse the power they have.

For the preservation of democracy, which is in essence the preservation of the freedom of all citizens, the citizens must know what the government is doing. Ignorance of government malfeasance is bad for citizens but those in government have an interest in keeping the public ignorant. Governments often hide behind the “national security” smokescreen to avoid having to reveal their misdeeds. Governments that hide what they are doing from their citizens eventually create an adversarial relationship between the two.

The best leaders attempt to break down the information barrier to create conditions that promote a healthy symbiotic relationship between the people and the government. After all, we the people create the government so that we can get those things done which require community effort and which we will not be able to achieve acting individually. Government is our agent and we are the principals. But if we don’t know what our agent is up to, in what sense are we the people principals?

It seems to me that great leadership is about leading a government that is on the citizens’ side. Great leadership is open and transparent about what the government is doing and why. It is about accountability and responsiveness. At its foundation, great leadership consists in fighting the government on behalf of the people if the government is not doing its duty.

Prime Minister Modi has the opportunity to show that he sides with the people of India in their struggles against the government. I believe that he was given a remarkable mandate in the last general elections in India because people trusted that he is on their side. A social contract was definitely forged when he asked for support and the people gave him that. If I am right, then I think it is time that he deliver on the contract.

Trust lies at the heart of any enduring relationship. If the people cannot trust those whom it has elevated to high positions in government, it will inevitably lead to a cynical but rational rejection of governmental authority. Trust has to be deserved and earned. For that, those in government have to be forthcoming about what they have achieved and more importantly, what they have failed to achieve. A great leader tells all and lets the people decide whether or not he or she has delivered on the promises made.

The first and the most significant sign of failure of leadership is when those in government cannot reveal what the government has been up to. Secrecy or even the reluctance to make public all that the government knows signals failed leadership and gross incompetency.

There preliminary general comments need to be illustrated with some concrete example. A government which is dedicated to socialist ideals puts significant emphasis on the involvement of the public sector in ordinary commerce. India is a socialist country, not by accident but by design. The constitution mandates it. Maybe that’s good. But let the people decide if socialism is good in practice or not, regardless of the lofty claims made by socialism about promoting the general welfare. For the people to decide, the people have to know.

Now for the one specific case I would like to explore: the Indian government’s involvement in commercial aviation. Air India is a public sector undertaking, a PSU. Why the government of any country should be in the business of commercial aviation is a question that needs to be seriously asked and honestly answered. But that has neither been asked nor answered. However, a great leader would proactively answer that question. And the best answer would be one that is both intelligible and accessible to the average citizen.

By intelligible I mean that the answer should be stated in terms that one does not have to be a certified chartered accountant and a financial analyst to understood them. By accessible I mean that one should not have to expend herculean effort to find the answer. If one has seek an answer after making an application in triplicate with attestations by notary public and other rigmarole, then it is not easily accessible. The aim should be to keep the information simple and the access equivalent to what one needs to make, say, a railway reservation.

Let’s get the accessibility issue out of the way first. The obvious channel is to have a government website with the information. Agreed that only a small portion of citizens currently have access to the Internet but that should not be a deterrent. After all, given that nearly half of the people are illiterate, publishing them on paper would be costly and still not reach all.

The information should be out there for anyone interested in getting it without going through any “Right to Information” mechanisms. To be frank, I think the much trumpeted RTI is a load of ignorant nonsense but I will not go down that sidetrack here. Getting information that the public is entitled to should be as easy as getting the weather forecast. There are people who have weather information (it’s their job as meteorologists) and one simply navigates over to the appropriate website without having to file an application to get the weather forecast. One doesn’t have to invoke some “Right to Weather Forecast Information” law. A RWFI is silly and it is equally silly to have something like RTI.

So here’s what I would like to see: A website for “AIR INDIA for INDIANS”. It will list profit/losses for each year of operation. Cumulative profit and losses for each year. Assets — how many planes, etc. How many employees etc. The management and the top management’s qualification and their salaries. Finally, comparisons. We need to know how AIR INDIA compares to other airlines. Average number of employees per aircraft, average load factor, and so on. This will help us figure out whether AIR INDIA is an asset or a liability for the Indian taxpayer.

It has always been a mystery to me why AIR INDIA is a PSU. To be entirely honest, I am prejudiced against AIR INDIA as a matter of general principle. I believe that the government has no business to be in business. (I have been saying that for a couple of decades and was quite heartened to hear Shri Modi express that sentiment a few times during his election campaign. But perhaps I just imagined it, since I am a big Modi supporter.) I can argue why the government should not be in business but not right now.

Right now I’d like to just know the facts. The facts I want to know is how much benefit have Indians derived from the government running a commercial airline. If the benefits are positive, I will be the first to push for continued government involvement in commercial aviation. If on the other hand, AIR INDIA has accumulated losses decade after decade, I’d like to know how much and I’d like an explanation from the government why Indian taxpayers should continue to suffer losses because of the incompetence of those in charge.

Finally, if the government is unwilling to put up this website, I’d like some NGO to create it. Shame the government into doing what it should have done in the first place.

In conclusion, I think that this government headed by Prime Minister Modi has an unprecedented (as in, having no precedent) opportunity to turn India around. What PM Modi has to do is to show people that he’s on their side. He has to change the decades-old adversarial government into a government that fights for the people, not against them.

Everything cannot be changed overnight and it is immature to expect PM Modi to work miracles. But making sure that the citizenry is informed is hardly a difficult task in the modern information age. It’s not a matter of resources. Any educated teenager can put together a website on a lazy weekend. It’s all matter of will, vision, a commitment to transparent and accountable governance.

Will India have an informed citizenry? I am afraid not anytime soon.

5 thoughts on “An Informed Citizenry is the Bulwark of a Democracy

  1. The founding fathers were disgusted wtih the brit empire and the monarchy and tried to create a country that pretty much was the inverse of the empire. Partly selfish but to a greater extent a noble cause was to have a defensive wall against anything that resembled or could potentially morph into the monarchy. It is saddening to see how decrepit the system has become, from a democratic heaven into one that is a hybrid of the nightmares put forth by Orwell, Huxley and Kafka.

    In theory i believe it is possible to have informed citizenry in its true meaning but it is human nature to crave power and the quickest route to that is possessing knowledge about someone or something that most of society dont or cannot obtain. It is impractical to expect magnitudes of quantum leaps from a society steeped in socialist ideology and ecosystem.

    To end on a positive note, the recent initiative of making all RTI applications and responses public by posting them on a website is a good start.

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  2. Fantastic article Atanu. I am working with the government here in Australia and trust, talking about failures and being transparent are key themes I am exploring. Lot of good logic in your post. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. The author seems unaware that the United States is not a democracy, but is a Representative Republic. There is a considerable difference.

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    1. The author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson did recognize the distinction between a democracy and a constitutional republic. Indeed the Founding Fathers were understandably wary of democracy.

      So, Bob, the point is that Jefferson was aware of the distinction. And so are most people who have even a passing familiarity with reality.

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