The campaign by Aamir Khan, Subhash Chandra, Arvind Kejriwal et al for Kiran Bedi’s appointment to the top CIC position is both flawed and inappropriate.
The RTI Act 2005 is a landmark legislation that gives Indian citizens a platform to demand state accountability. Information commissioners are without doubt key to implementing the spirit of the RTI Act and not just its bare minimum legalese. If information is denied to the appellant, the Act allows two appeals: the First Appellate Authority (usually a direct supervisor of the PIO); then an Information Commissioner. If information is denied by the commissioner, there is no further source of redress. Hence, information commissioners are the final adjudicating authority for the implementation of the Act. There is wide consensus that differential and often regressive application of the Act by the Commissioners has stymied the Act’s implementation and intention. The Chief Information Commissioner is thus central to free access to information, necessary for a functional democracy.
Given that Kiran Bedi is a “person of eminence in public life” and freedom of expression is every citizen’s democratic right, it seems counterintuitive to argue against this lobbying effort. However, there are three reasons why this lobbying/campaigning for Kiran Bedi gives the real civil society cause for concern.
First, suitability not public opinion should be the basis for administrative appointments. Public opinion will by definition privilege the celebrity over less known persons. Kiran Bedi gets the overwhelming favourable response in public polls because she’s essentially uncontested – the public is not gauging her relative suitability vis-à-vis another individual. Moreover, public opinion is based largely on disseminated information and has little basis or even interest in validation. Clearly, we cannot select the next CIC based on an Indian Idol type SMS poll. As to Kiran Bedi, she may or may not do a good job as the CIC. However, she has compromised her credibility and seriousness by promoting a beauty creme. How can an individual celebrated in part for advancing gender equality (first women IPS officer) use her very reputation (“bedaag reputation ek din main nahi banti”) as analogy (“nahi bedaag sundarta”) to promote regressive consumer products like beauty cremes for women?
Second, if public opinion is to be used to pressurize the appointment committee, then the candidate (without whose implicit consent this campaign could not have been launched) must present a manifesto for the implementation of the Act post-appointment. The public should not be asked to form an opinion merely on the basis of celebrity endorsements. The campaign and candidate should make explicit their interpretation of the RTI Act (e.g., define information, use for resolution of grievance) and their stand regarding current provisions (e.g., implementing mandatory penalties) and proposed amendments (e.g., excluding file notings, “vexatious and frivolous” applications).
Third, the endorsers represent not the civil society but celebrities in their fields. If the campaign was to bypass the real civil society in favour of renowned persons, then there are other more relevant people, notably the NCPRI (National Campaign for People’s Right to Information) who are not even part of this lobbying effort. Additionally, the impression of diversity of the letter writers (and hence the manufactured image of her universal appeal) is false. Half of letter’s signatories are on the RTI Awards jury and there is a clear common thread connecting these apparently unconnected people. This brings us to the most disturbing fact of this campaign – using unqualified celebrities to promote a celebrity. The CIC post is not the film censor board so using Aamir Khan simply for the high decibel publicity perverts the appointment process. What gives Aamir Khan etc any special right to send this letter? Giving indiscriminate credence to celebrity opinion centralizes power and creates the same type of opaque nexus that’s against the spirit of RTI. People rise and become public figures for specific reasons and their power/influence should be confined to those areas, as opposed to the revolving door status quo where unqualified actors, sportspersons, businessmen and politicians occupy multiple positions like oscillating electrons in quantum mechanics
The underlying tenet of democracy is transparency, not popularity contests in the name of inclusiveness and participation. India is a representative democracy and such appointments are the responsibility of the executive body. The decision making process should of course be transparent; however, public opinion driven by celebrity endorsements (instead of democratic people’s movements) is susceptible to opacity and manipulation, and cannot and should not be the basis for serious administrative decisions.