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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 34, August 10, 2013

Our Experiments with Truth: Political Parties Band Together to Keep Themselves Out of RTI

Monday 12 August 2013, by Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey


by Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey

Engulfed in scams and in the midst of a growing credibility deficit of the political establishment, the government’s move to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act to keep political parties out of its ambit is most unfortunate and injudicious. This step will deepen the chasm between the political system and the people. It is especially unwise at this juncture as it’s another setback to expectations of responsible and fair governance.

The dilemma lies in the fact that democracy is the only system that promises equality but its institutions continue to systematically deny it. The history of the national movement, the Gandhian commitment to simplicity and frugality in politics, could have set the standards and tone of a new India guided by non-negotiable principles of public ethics and thrift. The doublespeak therefore needs to be questioned.

The Central Information Commission (CIC) decision to classify political parties as public authorities and bring them under the RTI Act has kicked up a storm in our democratic polity. It is a pity that the opportunity provided for the politician to transform into a statesman is lost in the muddle of apprehension and self-interest. This was an opportunity for enforcing greater transparency amongst the political class, but also to expand direct coverage of the RTI to all institutions and organisations who spend public funds. There is every good reason for all public bodies — those who collect money from the people and claim to work in public interest — to be directly answerable to the people.

There is broad agreement that money and finances are at the root of all political and electoral corruption in elections and governance; even muscle power is invariably bought. At the very least a consensus should be reached on ensuring transparency of finance. Currently donations from corporate and private interests heavily influence government decisions, policy and legislation. The yawning gap between "statements submitted" and real expenditure during elections is no secret. Recent statements by politicians have exposed dramatically what real election spending to "secure" a seat means. This does not end with party issues but also determines key appointments in government. Is it surprising that the citizen wants to know where money comes from and goes?

In this atmosphere rife with mistrust, amend-ments to exempt the political establishment from the RTI Act are patently arbitrary and unfair. Political parties and the government had recourse to the CIC order through an appeal to the courts. Government made a commitment on the floor of the House in 2009 that amendments will follow broad public debate. So the unseemly haste in bringing amendments to Parliament, eschewing a more inclusive and textured conver-sation, raises many questions.

The silent and opaque process by which amendments went to the Union cabinet is curious. Ordinary people had to rely on leaks and unconfirmed news reports to learn that amendments were being brought. Was this done to prevent people from raising voices of protest against the amendments?

There is an even more specific objection to this case. The political class, whose vested interests may be hurt, cannot become the petitioner, court and judge in its own case. There could be legitimate concerns that the amendments might negatively affect political activity. Not bringing these questions into the public domain, and arbitrarily deciding on blanket self-exemptions, is politically and democratically unacceptable. We should take a look at the nature of the primary objections.

Many parties and leaders have reiterated that they are committed to financial trans-parency and accountability, but only to the Election Commission and Income Tax Depart-=ment. This argument is problematic because it avoids having to directly answer the people even on financial matters. In fact, the Election Commission and Income Tax Depart-ment badly need to be assisted by public monitoring, to address basic challenges of accountability. The RTI, on the other hand, has evolved into a decentralised process that allows an ordinary person to interface at her own expense and with her constitutional legitimacy as a sovereign citizen.

Even legitimate questions raised by political parties—interference in internal affairs and management, protecting competitive interests like the selection of candidates, and matters of strategy—can be understood better through debate and discussion. Polarised and simplistic projections of issues need to be unpacked, for defining the road map of a working democracy.

The current Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have so far failed to enact the much needed Lokpal Bill, the Whistleblowers’ Protection Bill, the Grievance Redress Bill, and the Judicial Accoun-tability Bill. So the threat to undo a sure but nascent enforcing of financial transparency in the political sphere bodes ill for India’s demo-cratic future. A struggle must continue to ensure the transparency of the political system as a foundation of governance. Meanwhile, the political class can ill afford to further damage its public credibility at this time.

The hope lies with more committed and progressive political leaders, who could utilise this opportunity to help rescue politics from the negative influence of money and power. And by standing with their electorate, these leaders may understand that the demand for equal accountability is intrinsic to every public debate, going much beyond the mere casting of a vote.

(Courtesy: The Times of India)

The authors, leading members of Rajasthan’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan that spearheaded the country’s Right to Information movement, are with the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information.

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