Grand Tamasha

Himanshu Jha on the Right to Information Act’s Long and Winding Road

Episode Summary

Milan sits down with political scientist Himanshu Jha to talk about the domestic and foreign origins of the Right to Information Act, the implementation challenges it has faced, the ways in which it has challenged vested interests, and how the government has tried to undermine transparency.

Episode Notes

More than fifteen years ago, India’s parliament passed a sweeping piece of legislation known as the Right to Information Act—a law that transforms the way ordinary citizens access the inner workings of government, offering them an unprecedented glimpse into how policy is made, how funds are allocated, and how interests are served. 

A new book by the political scientist Himanshu Jha, Capturing Institutional Change: The Case of the Right to Information Act, asks a seemingly simple question: why would a state that is so deeply penetrated by vested interests, initiate a far-reaching process of reform that would expose the very special interests who have benefited from opacity in the first place? 

This week on the podcast, Milan sits down with Himanshu, who is a lecturer and research fellow in the Department of Political Science at the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg University. The two talk about the domestic and foreign origins of law, the implementation challenges it has faced, the ways in which it has challenged vested interests, and how the government has tried to undermine transparency. 

Episode Transcription

Milan  00:11

Welcome to Grand Tamasha, a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. I'm your host, Milan Vaishnav. 


More than 15 years ago, India's Parliament passed a sweeping piece of legislation known as the Right to Information Act, a new law that transforms the way ordinary citizens access the inner workings of government, offering them an unprecedented glimpse into how policy is made, how funds are allocated, and how interests are served. A new book by the political scientist Himanshu Jha, Capturing Institutional Change: The Case of the Right to Information Act, asks a seemingly simple question: Why would a state that is so deeply penetrated by vested interests initiate a far-reaching process of reform that would expose the very special interests who have benefited from opacity in the first place? To explain this puzzle and much, much more, Himanshu joins me on the phone from Heidelberg, Germany. Himanshu, good to talk to you.



Thanks, Milan. Pleasure to be here.


Milan  01:05

So, I want to ask you a little bit about why you decided to write this book. You mention at the very outset, in the preface, that the seeds of this research were really sown during your time working in the development field prior to going to graduate school, where you were on the ground in India. Tell us a bit about what you were doing during this period and what you saw there that prompted you to want to go deeper to explore the changing norms around transparency in government.



That's an interesting question. Yes, I can trace it back to the time when I was working for the development sector in India, and this idea of transparency and accountability coincided with my work. At that time, I was working for this advocacy think tank called Social Watch, where we would monitor the performance of institutions of governance – Parliament, the judiciary, institutions of local governance, and the executive. Every year, we would take out this report, which was called Social Watch Report, and I remember that one of the appraisals of Parliament that we did way back in 2007, or 2008, or 2006 – I don't remember the exact time – the headline in the Hindustan Times was “Dirt in Indian Parliament,” and we got a prompt phone call from the then-speaker of Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee, who was very upset about this headline. 


So, these were the kinds of things that we were doing, and it coincided with the phase when a whole lot of rights-based legislations were being enacted at the central level. So, you had the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act, you had the Right to Information Act; later on, you had the Right to Education Act as well. And so essentially the whole logic was that something which was recommended in the Directive Principles of State Policy was interpreted as a fundamental right, and so there was a marriage between the two. And as an activist, as somebody who was working for an advocacy think tank, these things kind of excited me. But RTI was like the father of all rights – in India, they said, you know, the “babu of all rights,” so to speak, because it spoke to this whole system of seeking accountability from the state at many levels, and there were crossovers between these different rights. 


So, Right to Information was promulgated during the same period, and yet it was very different, because there was no policy precursor to it. In fact, it was illegal for citizens to, you know, receive information from the state, and all state information was considered secret. I actually did this workshop where we listened to fascinating experiences of how people have used Right to Information – this workshop was in partnership with UNDP – and there was this organization called Kabir, which was run by, believe it or not, the now-deputy chief minister of Delhi, Manish Sisodia. So, we did this workshop, and that kind of fascinated me, this whole story, and that there were dominant narratives which are somewhat settled about how it came about, that there was a social movement in Rajasthan spearheaded by Aruna Roy, MKSS – [along with] Nikhil Dey – that became a national campaign known as the National Campaign for People's Right to Information. But even then, there was sporadic, scattered, kind of commonsensical knowledge – [it was clear that] this is just not the entire story. I mean, there's more to that story than just this. And so that kind of brought me back to the academic drawing board to connect the dots.


Milan  05:16

So, let me back up for a second. I'm sure most of our listeners are probably familiar with the rough outlines of the 2005 Right to Information Act. It was, as you mentioned, a landmark piece of legislation. It was very much one of the flagship accomplishments of the previous Congress-led UPA government that was in power from 2004 to 2014. But for the benefit of those who don't know about it, or who only have encountered it in passing, can you describe for us what the law does in the big picture? And why is it such a landmark piece of legislation? Why was it such a rupture from the past?



Milan, as you know, Right to Information, at the very basic level, provides a legal regime to its citizens to access information from the state, from the public authorities. But as we go studying the law as it kind of pans out for the citizens, there is so much more that you can interpret about the law. 


So, for instance, information is very clearly defined in the law, but what entails information? It essentially covers all records, any record which the public authorities hold – emails, memos, press releases, circulars, you name it; it all falls under the ambit of Right to Information. It also covers all federal units: it covers the central departments and central ministries, it covers the state departments and the state ministries, and it also covers the mukhia's office at the level of the village, the block. 


So, another important thing about this right is that it also gives you the right to kind of inspect the work, the documents. You can also take notes, take photocopies – if there's a road being built in your neighborhood, you can also take the samples of the material which they are using, certified samples of the material which is being used to build that road. It gives citizens a system of appeal – you can actually appeal if the information is refused. There's a stipulated timeframe within which you can actually get the information. I don't think many laws in the world have had this. There's also a system of penalties being imposed on erring officials. Of course, it's a different story how much of that penalty is actually imposed, and we will get to that. 


But there is also a nitty gritty [detail] about this law which is very interesting. So, for instance, Section 18 of this law actually provides for initiating inquiries, so a state information commissioner or a commissioner sitting at the Central Information Commission can, on the basis of what is revealed through RTI, actually direct the officials to initiate inquiries. And during my fieldwork in Bihar, I actually saw it happening that RTI revealed some anomalies in the implementation of the MGNREGA, which is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme – 


Milan  08:57

Just to mention – this is the biggest workfare program in the world, which guarantees rural laborers one hundred days of paid labor.



– and so, as the anomalies were revealed at the district level, the state information commissioner saw it as a pattern, and he actually directed the district magistrates to initiate these inquiries. So, RTI presents a kind of a contrasting before and after picture. So, earlier, the legal regime was governed by the norm of secrecy, facilitated by laws such as the Official Secrets Act, Sections 1-3 of the Indian Evidence Act, Civil Services Conduct Rules of 1964, or the Manual of Office Procedures of the Government of India, which actually said that receiving and giving out information with the public authorities is a legal offence. RTI completely changed that. And the change is absolutely complete because Section 22 of RTI says that, in case of a conflict with other laws, it is the Right to Information Act which holds supreme. And yet Right to Information is different from other rights-based legislations…


Milan  10:20

Could I just intervene on this question? Because, if you go back to 1947, in the immediate post-Independence period, you note in the book that government in India was shrouded in a veil of secrecy, and it was very much governed by the Official Secrets Act, or OSA, which is a kind of British colonial relic. We often ask ourselves – whether it's the civil services, whether it's the police – why independent India continued on with this British colonial relic, even though now you weren't governing subjects, you were governing citizens. Was there a debate about whether or not there should have been a clean break just from the outset? In a sense, one could ask, why did it take sixty years for this to happen?



Well, surely there was a debate, and this is the kind of political debate that I've tried to capture in this book, where there were kind of pulls and pressures – there was a churning of ideas which was happening within the state. But coming back to the OSA, the Official Secrets Act, it has to be kind of understood in a broad political context. Surely, Britishers would have [this kind of act] as an imperialist power – they need to run their governance in utmost secrecy. So, surely, Britishers would have it, and the colonial rulers had it because of the World Wars – they needed the Official Secrets Act during the two wars, the First World War and the Second World War. And so the norm took root that official information is key to national security and state interests. And as we all know, the steel frame of the bureaucracy, or the system that we inherited in independent India, was a colonial legacy. 


And so the logic that the official information is key to national security and state interests actually carried on. And so in 1951, the Official Secrets Act was just amended by merely removing all the references to Great Britain and replacing it with India. And in 1967, it actually was amended to an even stronger version by redefining relevant sections of the act, making the offense of receiving and giving information as a non-bailable offense, [making it so] that all official information with the public authorities is confidential and secret and so on and so forth. And if you would go back to the debate which happened in the parliament when the 1967 Amendment was introduced, then-home minister Vidya Charan Shukla actually states this very clearly in the statement of objects and reasons. 


And so we inherited it – not only inherited it, but made it stronger. And this is what Paul Pearson calls the “locking-in effect” of a norm. The norm kind of got locked in at all the systemic levels.


Milan  13:38

One of the central points of the book – in fact, the central thesis of the book – is that the transparency movement that evolved over time really did develop from within the state itself. So, I think that immediately begs the question, how did a countermovement against vested interests of the state emerge from within the state? I think to many people that might sound counterintuitive. How did it evolve?



I think there are two sources to it. The first source was the government reports themselves. The Government of India constituted a number of committees right after Independence for the appraisal of public administration for the probity of public life – anti-corruption committees – and all the reports of these committees since Independence actually aired their views about the norm of openness, that government affairs should be more open. And that's why I say that it was from within the state. 


But another important source that was actually very significant was this demand from the opposition parties, from within the Parliament, that they should also have access to confidential information or information which is secret. And the root cause for this demand was that the exclusive privilege of accessing information from within the state was just with the ruling party. I've given this instance in the book: in 1965, there was a ruling of the speaker which allowed all the parliamentarians to actually quote from confidential reports, and this ruling was actually triggered by the opposition demand to quote from the official documents. 


And so this is a long-drawn idea which emerged from within the state, and that's the kind of picture, that's the cognitive map of the state that I tried to kind of capture in this book.


Milan  15:53

You cite the Janata Party government that was in power for a brief period following the Emergency, 1977 to 1979, as a kind of inflection point in the fight for openness. Now, obviously, the Janata government was a group of political actors that had been at the receiving end of Indira Gandhi's Emergency, and so they had their own selfish interests in trying to pry open the state. But what struck me in reading your book is the question of, why they didn't they do even more as a countermovement to undo the entrenched secretive methods of government working? Can we really say this was a turning point? What defines it as such?



The Janata Party, in my view, was a turning point, but I would treat it like a link period in the sense that, in the phase that I just talked about, where there were opposition demands, there were sporadic reports from within the government which expressed the idea of openness – the Janata Party kind of emerged from that political milieu, that political context. So, I would kind of regard it as something which is a link period. 


So, for instance, then-home minister, Charan Singh, during the Janata Party constituted a committee to examine the possibility of amending the Official Secrets Act and giving some kind of legislation or some kind of ordinance to give citizens access to information, and this was shot down by the bureaucracy, and obviously so, because all the officials of this committee were from the departments and the ministry. So, for instance, there were members from the cabinet secretariat – ministry of finance, ministry of defense, ministry of home – and they kind of concluded that there is no need to amend the Official Secrets Act. 


But what happened during the Janata Party is that it provides a link period from the period when the ideas were nascent to the post-Janata Party period when ideas which were on the periphery actually gradually started moving to the policy center stage. So, right after the Janata Party, you see this hectic activity around demanding access to information. There were reports of the government which articulated the “right to know"; there were even private members' bills in the parliament tabled in 1983, 1984, called the Freedom of Information Bill. All this can be linked back to Janata Party. And what was happening within the Janata Party can be linked back to the 1965 ruling of the speaker which I just talked about. So, whenever the opposition came to power, the whole movement started gaining traction.


Milan  17:42

And it kind of gave it fresh momentum, as it were. In the eighties and nineties – just to kind of continue the story a little bit – the transparency movement continues to gather strength. At the same time, there are people inside of the state who want to institutionalize secrecy further. They're kind of doubling down, their backs against the wall. You call this process of institutional change that we witness “layering,” and I'm wondering, for the lay person, what does this mean? How does it actually work? Because this is a fundamental part of your story.



There are two connected arguments. I call it a layered tipping point. So, the layering happens when a nascent norm – a norm which is very rudimentary, just an idea – emerges on the fringes of a nested norm, a norm which is already locked in at all the systemic levels, and gradually moves to the center stage on the top of the nested norm, eventually displacing the nested norm, which is what has happened in RTI. 


But a related explanation to this is that this was a tipping point model in the sense that, there are three characteristics to it. The first is that there was a slow-moving, incremental, endogenous political power of ideas that was moving slowly from within the state. Second, what the layered tipping point is doing for me is that it is enabling me to kind of delineate small, interlinked changes which have evolved over time. And the ideas have gained enough critical mass to keep the system over – it kind of laid out the nested norm of secrecy. 


And why I call it layering is that you can clearly see that this has happened in two layers, which I call two phases, from 1947 to 1989. These ideas on openness are on the periphery: they are nascent ideas, they are still rudimentary, even though they are gaining traction. They are still in the realm of opposition politics; it has not gained traction within the state thinking. But in my second layer, you see the weight of earlier ideas has actually gained momentum and [acquired] critical mass, so to speak. 


So, from the National Front government in 1989, you see that the ideas which were on the periphery, nascent ideas, are part of the mainstream politics. All the political parties are promising Right to Information or Freedom of Information in their election manifestos. It is not only a political commitment, like the Janata Party, but the policy processes have also started kick-starting within the state. 


Surprisingly, between 1991 and 1996, you see a hiatus of activity around these demands –


Milan  22:12

Is the hiatus because of political shocks, like economic liberalization and other issues?



That's a puzzle, Milan, because you would think that in the heyday of economic reforms, the government would actually be more forthcoming to actually institutionalize transparency and accountability about the government affairs. And yet what happened in 1994 was that the minority government and Narasimha Rao actually went ahead and amended something called the manual of department security instructions, which classifies information according to the categories of secret – top secret and confidential. And my hunch is that since Congress was the longest ruling party, it was still hesitant in buying that idea, so the uptake of ideas would not have happened, whereas the National Front government and the United Front government that followed the Congress Party were more open to it because they were more or less the opposition gaining power at the Centre.


Milan  23:25

What I find so interesting is that the Right to Information Bill finally gets passed in Parliament at the Centre in 2005, but even as politicians were fighting over this legislation in the Capitol, the norm of greater transparency was taking root at the sub-national level, at the level of India states. You have this nice chart where you show Tamil Nadu, I believe, was the first state to pass its own RTI Act back in 1997. To what extent was the Centre actually learning from experiments that the states were already launching, albeit on a much smaller scale, in their own backyards? Was there this process of aggregation and learning the Centre was taking into account?



Milan, there's always a point in the book where the author wishes that he should have done more. Apparently, this is the section where I wish I could have done more. I could have found more evidence to ascertain why these ordinances and state Right to Information Acts were actually promulgated at the sub-national level. The papers at the central level, at least, don't indicate that there was any kind of norm diffusion that was happening from the sub-national to the national level. 


But I should point out two important things: that there was a chief ministers' conference in 1997 which kind of committed unanimously to enact Right to Information or access to information, and it was just after this 1997 chief ministers' conference that you see all these state-level acts being promulgated. And there were small initiatives independently taken at the sub-national level. So, for instance, Harsh Mander, who was an IAS posted in the Bilaspur division of Madhya Pradesh at that point of time, had given the citizens of Bilaspur the access to information, [access] to the official reports [on] the public distribution system.


Milan  25:38

This is for things like food rations and so on.



Yes, this was information about the food ration card and so on and so forth. And so what Harsh Mander did was to share it, at one level, with the activists who were busy in Rajasthan, and he was also sharing it within the state, contributing to the discourse which was happening within the state. So, for instance, the orders of Harsh Mander were shared with the judiciary committee that was constituted by the United Front government to examine the possibility of promulgating Right to Information. So, this was the kind of backstory to this whole state-level ordinances and Right to Information Act.


Milan  26:24

I want to circle back to something that you talked about the very beginning, which is: I think many scholars and analysts who have looked at the RTI Act have attributed its success, and its eventual passage in 2005, to civil society pressure. You mentioned a group like the MKSS, a pioneering advocacy information movement based in Rajasthan who applied intense pressure over a period of years for the state to open up. Your argument is somewhat different, right – that the passage of the RTI was not principally a result of this kind of bottom-up civil society mobilization. What have other analysts gotten wrong, or why has that role been overstated?



At the very outset, there's a disclaimer. I acknowledge the role of the social network, but there's a methodological difference with the social movement argument. The methodological difference is the point of departure. 


As I said earlier, the norm of secrecy can be traced back to the Official Secrets Act, and my argument is that, since the norm of secrecy can be traced back to 1947 or 1951, to the Official Secrets Act, the norms of openness, or the ideas of openness, have to be seen in that context – [we] have to actually go back to that point of departure. And as a result, what has happened is that in the book, I was able to bring in new historical evidence which was overlooked by the mainstream literature. For instance, this private member's bill by G.C. Bhattacharya which was tabled in the parliament in 1983 is not talked about in any mainstream narrative for this 1965 ruling by the speaker. And so if you redefine the point of departure, it kind of enables you to bring in new historical evidence, and if you're tracing an institutional path, you have to appropriately define the point of departure. This is what this kind of book brings in. 


The second important point which I should mention, Milan, is the nature of the social movement itself. It's very easy to call it a social movement, but I have kind of a nuanced view on this, because this was a network which not only had social movement actors – they had actors from the legal fraternity, they had journalists, they had academicians. So, I call it an epistemic network, where each node of this network came in with their unique epistemic quality. And so the linkages were not interest-based – the linkages were more ideational, it was ideas around openness which kind of bound them together, and so I call them an epistemic network.


Milan  29:33

Another statement that people often make is that the influence of Western democracies like the United States or United Kingdom also played a pivotal role. I think a lot of people, as shorthand, say, “India passed this legislation that was modeled after the United States Freedom of Information Act,” which of course is a decades-old act. To what extent did India and people within the state, outside of the state – the people who are really involved in pushing for this change – look to the United States or others as a source of inspiration?



That's another aspect which is actually overlooked in the mainstream literature. The mainstream literature suggests that the demand was from the bottom-up – it was a grassroots movement. And when I see the government documents, the primary documents that I have been able to access – by the way, it was through RTI that I was able to access them; if I would have been found in possession of these documents before RTI, I would probably be in jail.


Milan  30:37

So, in your case, RTI is both the subject of the book and the means of actually doing the book itself.



Absolutely. And so there are two arguments to the whole global norm story. The first argument that I make is, there was a demonstrative impact of what existed elsewhere on the ongoing domestic discourse: “The United States as a mature democracy has done it, Sweden has done it a long time back, and so let us look at their laws. What do their laws tell us?” So, there was a demonstrative impact, and the advocates of Freedom of Information, advocates of openness at the domestic level, often cited these laws.


The second thing which was happening was non-localization, where the actual law from the United States, the U.S. FYI law, or the U.K. law, or the New Zealand or Australia laws – specific clauses of these laws were being borrowed and drawn upon, but not as passive learners. They were localized according to the local needs – this is what Amitav Acharya calls norm localization. 


So, this is what is happening with the global norms, but, surprisingly, they are in conjunction with the domestic discourse. So, as the ideas on openness were at the nascent stage at the periphery in the first phase, so were the global norms, but as ideas of openness found some traction within the state thinking, the global norms found traction within the state thinking as well. 


Milan  32:17

Your book – and you are very clear about this upfront – is really focused on how Right to Information came to be as opposed to what happened after it passed its implementation. However, since you have studied this so closely, I know you've also studied the implementation. I'm wondering if you could bring us up to speed. If you go from the paper on which the law is written to how it's actually practiced on the ground, how well has this piece of legislation actually performed? Has it lived up to the promise that so many of its proponents had laid out for us throughout this period?



Milan, it's a case of glass half-full, like any other law in India. I think if you see RTI as a continuum – at the one end of the continuum are the information givers and at the other end are the information seekers, and the space between these two ends of the continuum is the new space of accountability. But what has happened is that RTI, as it is implemented, has been hobbled with some challenges. There is reluctance on the part of the state to part with information; there are tendencies and delays. The posts for information commissioners are vacant. There's also a negative view of the RTI users. 


But despite this, RTI has been used by many, and even people who belong to the less-privileged section of the society. So, in the book, I start with this fascinating story of RTI used by a rickshaw puller in the poor eastern state of Bihar, where he used Right Information to get services from the state. But there are core RTI users whom I call agents of accountability. There's a lot of pushback – despite the reluctance from the state – to seek accountability from the state, and I call these RTI users agents of accountability, who are the new agents of accountability who seek through the use of RTI accountability from the state.


Milan  34:38

I want to end by asking you about where things go from here. At the very tail end of the book, you point out that there have been recent amendments to the RTI Act enacted and passed in Parliament by the present NDA government. These have been described by many observers as detrimental to the overall cause of transparency. Why are these, in your view, potentially damaging to the cause of openness?



What the 2019 amendments are doing is taking away the autonomy of the regulators. Essentially, by controlling the tenure of the information commissioners and the emoluments of the information commissioners, it is taking away the autonomy of the information commissioners. It is a quasi-judicial position where they have to actually rule against the state itself, so it's kind of taking away the autonomy. And so the bite that RTI has will be blunted with this amendment, for sure. 


But it is not the first time that any government has attempted to dilute RBI. There has always been this tendency to put former bureaucrats as information commissioners to fill the vacant posts, and surely they will protect their own genus in comparison to favoring the citizens.


Milan  36:02

And, in fact, the previous government had moved its own amendments to dilute the law – they just didn't go through.



Absolutely. And also, it's very closely related to the current scenario of electoral bonds, where the political parties are just refusing to come under the ambit of Right to Information.


Milan  36:18

Right. Can I ask you about another actor, just in closing, which is the judiciary? The judiciary has been, according to your book, according to many accounts – according to some of my own work on criminality, for instance – a stalwart ally of the transparency movement. In fact, you dedicated an entire chapter to your book to exploring how its own views, its judicial thinking and philosophy, have evolved on transparency. Today, we are seeing a different judiciary, it seems, largely avoiding tough calls. Whether it's on the electoral bonds question you mentioned, which is still sitting in front of the court – people have complained about the delays over habeas corpus petitions related to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir – a range of other issues, which, you could argue, strike at the heart of the transparency agenda. What do you think has changed? 



I thought you would never ask me this tricky question, Milan, but you have.


Milan  37:14

Feel free to ignore it if you'd rather not answer it.



No, just quickly – I think the judiciary was an important player. As you know, as you have already mentioned, I've devoted this whole chapter to it. Surely the interpretation of the Constitution was very important in this regard, where Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, which grants citizens a fundamental right to freedom of expression and speech, was interpreted as inherently containing right to know. How can you have freedom of expression and speech unless you have knowledge about some information, right? But this is not to claim that the journey of judicial verdicts, or the journey of constitutional interpretation, has been a linear journey. There have been ups and downs. 


And right at the peak of emergency, there was this famous case called the habeas corpus case, or the ADM Jabalpur case, [in which a] Supreme Court bench actually upheld the presidential rule to detain citizens, and except for one single dissent by Justice Khanna, all the bench actually ruled in favor of the government. And surprisingly, Justice P.B. Sawant, who is known as this champion of freedom of information, was one who was part of this ruling. And later on, in one of the interviews, he actually conceded in 2012 that political ideologies are bound to color the judgments. And so similar things are happening now, where the judiciary is being captured as an institution, it is losing its autonomy. 


But Milan, as a social scientist, I try to avoid examining the moving targets. I try to look at some of the things. But this is not something new which has happened – the journey of the judiciary and the constitutional interpretation has not been a linear journey, so to speak.


Milan  39:22

I think one of the most interesting aspects of the book – just to build on what you mentioned – is that you have these kind of crests and waves, these peaks and valleys in terms of the transparency movement, where you think you've reached a potential tipping point, and in fact then things go in the opposite direction. You achieve a breakthrough and then there's a backlash, right? And so it's far from being linear. It's two steps forward, one step backward. 


One final thing before I let you go: the model of institutional change that you sketched out in this book was totally compelling when I read it. I wonder to what extent it can be expanded to other issues. So, the logic that we discussed about norms emerging from within the state, about layering, about path dependency – all these issues can inform our understanding of other major changes which have been enacted, or other changes which have not been enacted, in the post-Independence era.



The ups and downs that you were talking about – in the book somewhere, to capture this pattern, I've used the term ideational churning. There was a churning which was happening within the state, and after the promulgation of RTI, a similar kind of churning was taking place at the ground level between the nested norm of secrecy and the norm of openness. Whether this model of slow-moving, gradual change can be extended to explain other changes, other cases of changes in policy paradigms, depends on the empirical material. 


I mean, there are two ways to think about it. One is this thinking that there's a critical juncture which opens up a short window of opportunity to alter the institutional path. Another view which is actually outlined in this book, which kind of talks about the slow-moving gradual, incremental change... In a complex country like India, the changes which are long-lasting have always been these gradual, incremental changes. For example, the 1991 economic reforms, [to the extent that] you can call it an institutional change, was actually not a sudden change. In 1991, surely, there was a window of opportunity, but the micro changes started taking place minutely within the state since the 1970s. And so, if the lesson that we can learn from RTI and the RTI story about the slow-moving gradual change is that in a complex democracy like India, under various pulls and pressures – social and political pressures, economic pressures – I think gradualism works, and I'm kind of just opposing it to some of the recent bills which have been passed in the parliament, where there have been no debate or no churning which has taken place from within the state. 


So, I think to capture the changes in the Indian policy landscape, you have to have a long duration view about the uptake of ideas, about how ideas take shape within the state and change state thinking around the issue.


Milan  42:39

My guest on the show today is Himanshu Jha. He is on the faculty at the Department of Political Science at the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg University in Germany. He's the author of a brand-new book titled Capturing Institutional Change: The Case of the Right to Information Act. Himanshu, thanks so much. Congrats on the book, and thanks for taking the time to speak with me.



Thank you, Milan. Pleasure talking to you.