There is a fair chance that when the Uttarakhand government starts putting out a definitive number to the fatalities in the flash floods, most people in India will not accept the figure as true. This has nothing to do with the Congress being in power and the BJP sitting in the Opposition. There is also no connection with the bitter battle of words the two parties are locked in. Irrespective of which party is in power, Indians disbelieve government figures when it comes to the death toll, number of injured, material loss and the amount of money spent on relief and rehabilitation. The trend is the same for man-made or natural disasters as well as for disturbances caused by internal conflict. Why is it that even on such a vital matter a large section of people sees the government as hiding the truth?
In contrast to the lack of trust in India, whenever governments in mature western democracies put out fatality figures, people accept them. It would be easy to conclude that Indian political leaders and bureaucrats are not trusted because they are considered corrupt. But such a conclusion does not factor in how the relationship between the State and the people has evolved historically in India.
In India, the first exposure of the people to a modern post-feudal State was after 1857 when the British Crown took charge and evolved a structured colonial regime. It took several decades for people to politically articulate their thoughts and form the opinion that colonialism was not the moderniser and liberator from exploitative feudal rulers as the British had claimed when Wajid Ali Shah was deposed.
Once the national movement started drawing mass support from the first decade of the 20th century, the colonial regime began to be seen as a natural adversary. Mahatma Gandhi’s success in leading the non-cooperation movement backed by the masses, in the second decade, further cemented the belief that the State was an enemy of the people.
From the 1920s, the national movement was marked by phases of aggressive agitations which were met with State repression. When people sought out the truth behind these episodes, the State hid behind smokescreens and little information was disclosed on the number of people dead or injured in police action. In the early 1940s, people witnessed the complete failure of the British regime to either intervene effectively or disclose adequate information during the Great Bengal Famine when millions died due to a combination of starvation, malnutrition, disease and inadequate policy.
After Independence, the Congress took control of the State but did not change the perception that it was an opaque institution. The problem was accentuated because Partition accompanied Independence and the system was stressed. At that time, providing figures on riots was not the priority of the State. But even after the regime stabilised, lack of transparency became the norm and when disillusionment with the Nehruvian dream began to get articulated and agitations started mushrooming in various parts of the country, the State once again began to be seen as a natural adversary. An early political belief thereby became a cultural trait.
Because the State failed to secure the trust of the people, all agitations began to be considered as fights to the finish. Opposition parties blurred the lines between State and government and campaigned for “throwing it out” because it was no different from the colonial regime.
In the past two decades, the Right to Information movement has thrived and has succeeded in pressuring the political leadership to introduce a method of enforced transparency. But the State has not graduated from running a system where information is honestly shared with the people only when it is constitutionally demanded, to a system where it does on its own volition.
Totalitarianism has found increasing supporters in India in recent years as regimes have floundered. As Indians felt stifled by regimes that do not share information and provide services due to them, majoritarianism is being seen as the only solution by a large number of people. Transparency is the greatest bulwark against such anti-democratic ideologies but political parties and leaders committed to democratic principles have not opted for the practice because of the fear that, in the short run, this may threaten their tenure.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author — most recently of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times
The views expressed by the author are personal