The trappings are still there. But our democracy has slowly but surely been hollowed out of its substance. Today, we have a parliament that sits once a week, MPs asking questions, ministers reading out answers but our thirst for the truth remaining largely unquenched. At the same time, we are being steamrollered by the full weight of the government propaganda machine.
An innocuous sentence by the leader of the opposition, Xavier-Luc Duval, on Tuesday may have gone unnoticed. But it highlights an unfortunate state of affairs. When Minister of Infrastructure Nando Bodha accused Duval of having signed a Rs37 billion-contract for the light rail transit system while he was in the Labour/PMSD government, the latter stated, “You must have heard what David Cameron said recently about Boris Johnson: that he left the truth at home. The same applies here because […] I have no way of checking what you are saying.”
When it comes to talking, masking the truth and tossing figures at us, the government PR machine is unequalled. If you take just two instances: the tramway – which will now run almost entirely at ground level – and the supply of our petroleum products, you will get an idea of how much we are being taken for a ride. For the tramway, we heard figures for the previous government’s project – admittedly a different one – ranging between Rs24 billion and Rs37 billion. Every time a minister or government propagandist opens his/her mouth, a different random figure comes out. As for the cost of the current project, the figure revolves around Rs19 billion. So much saving overnight? Oh, dear!
The reality is that, in spite of the number of questions put in parliament, we still have no idea how much we will end up paying. Everything has become a state secret. The contract is top secret and what the figure hurled at us involves is even more of a secret. We know for example that several ministries are ‘giving a helping hand’ to Larsen & Toubro and that even policemen have been made to double up as watchmen for the company instead of concentrating on ensuring that our homes and streets are safe and that our women are not beaten to death under their watch. Free police work is not free. It has a cost which has not been priced in.
When it comes to the supply of petroleum products, the same sorry tale is being peddled since the State Trading Corporation decided to terminate the Betamax contract and not to renew a supply agreement with Mangalore Refineries, which had been supplying us since 2006. How much have we saved since then? Millions every year if you listen to government propaganda. So why are the figures kept top secret? Is it out of extreme humility? What is certain is that we have seen MSM President Showkutally Soodhun rushing to his favourite countriy begging for oil to avoid a catastrophe. Since then, we have been getting petrol from Bahrain and China on an emergency procurement basis. All without a tender of course and done in the same cagey way that has characterised this government since the beginning of its mandate.
For a government that has campaigned on freedom of information legislation, this is a rather dismal performance. We can’t know how much we citizens are paying for projects – like the tramway – we didn’t give our blessing to; we are not allowed to be informed about what our real public debt is because it is being channeled through conveniently set up ‘special purpose vehicles’ using our money and refusing any accountability; no information is available about the cost of our petroleum products; we are not entitled to know – perish the thought – how much members of lakwizin (who are digging into our thread-bare pockets) are making; we are not told why contracts are allocated without going through a tender exercise; and it is none of our business who transits through the airport VIP lounge that we are paying for. Even the contract with Liverpool is top secret!
So rather than access to information, we have access to propaganda and spin doctoring. Maybe government members should indeed go home and pick up the truth. If it is there!
For more views and in-depth analysis of current issues, Weekly magazine (Price: Rs 25) or subscribe to Weekly for Rs110 a month. (Free delivery to your doorstep). Email us on: [email protected]