Subhash Chandra Agrawal for BeyondHeadlines
Political parties of India have shown unique unanimity on verdict by full-bench of Central Information Commission (CIC) holding them under purview of RTI Act. Political leaders are utterly confused when they are regularly changing their stands in extreme stands of once welcoming the verdict, to the other terming it as some adventurist approach for seeking publicity aimed to hit democratic set-up of the country.
Politicians commenting on the decision are doing so even without knowing A-B-C of RTI Act, passed only by them after great deliberations in Parliament. Better would be that spokespersons of political parties would have learnt about provisions of RTI Act from experts and convenors of RTI cells established by them in their parties, before commenting on the CIC-decision. They should read just section 2(h)(d)(i) of RTI Act which defines a public-authority as “body owned, controlled or substantially financed directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government” to judge by themselves if they are covered by RTI Act or not.
Ethics and morals demand that political parties criticising the verdict should immediately and voluntary surrender land and bungalows provided by the government to them at highly subsidised rates and lease, apart from making a declaration that they will not avail any government-facility like AIR and Doordarshan timings, voter-lists, tax-concessions etc in future.
Unfortunately the ruling party which gifted people of this nation this wonderful Act instead of representing itself before Central Information Commission despite repeated notices issued to it, has now taken U-turn on its stand after initially welcoming the verdict.
Otherwise also apprehensions expressed by political parties about possible outcome of the verdict are also based on misconceptions and their total lack of knowledge about the provisions of RTI Act. Transparency Act does not give absolute and blanket power to citizenry to ask any type of questions. There is an important section 8(1) with ten sub-clauses which have exemptions from disclosure of information which will provide sufficient powers to political parties for denying information. There is also section 7(9) which empowers public-authorities to decline any such information which may divert resources of public-authorities disproportionately. Political parties can sue-motto declare maximum information on their websites under section 4(1)(b) of RTI Act to avoid large number of RTI petitions coming to them. Even for future, they can update their websites accordingly on basis of information most sought under RTI Act.
It has been argued that political parties will now onwards be accountable to two institutions Election Commission and Central Information Commission. This is also misconception. RTI Act will make political parties accountable to public and not to Central Information Commission. Role of Central Information Commission will be much after that too only for deciding if information sought by a petitioner is answerable under RTI Act or not. Even such role of Central Information Commission will emerge only in cases where a petitioner files an appeal with Central Information Commission after crossing two initial stages including one of first appeal filed with Appellate Authority appointed by the political party against response given by the Public Information Officer of the concerned political party. Otherwise there is no supervisory or disciplinary role of Central Information Commission under RTI Act.
Another point argued by political parties is that they may now have to disclose all deliberations done in their board or other meetings for discussing their political strategies etc. Again this is a misconception. RTI Act provides giving only such information which is materially available on record. Verbal deliberations can only be a termed as material on record to be provided under RTI Act if there is some provision to get it recorded in audio or video. For example, Union government decided to provide audio-tapes of deliberations on draft of Lokpal Bill in Joint drafting Committee set up by it even without requiring any intervention of Central Information Commission, Since there seems to be no such practice of recording deliberations made at different levels in political parties in their inner-party meetings, any such apprehension about disclosure of strategical deliberations is just baseless.
Political parties have expressed doubts that reasoning in form of ‘why’ will be asked under RTI petitions on aspects like selection of candidates. This again is totally baseless apprehension because RTI Act does not provide to give reasoning of any decision-taken or even queries put in form of ‘why’.
Now coming to positive features in larger interest of nation and its people which can be achieved by making political parties accountable to public through RTI Act, petitions can be filed seeking file-notings on drafting poll-manifestoes which often give gimmick and at times unfulfilled promises made by political parties at time of elections. Political parties are reluctant towards much awaited poll-reforms despite Election Commission reminding successive Union governments of different parties and alliances many-a-times in last some decades. Only recently Chairperson of Minorities Commission (first Chief Information Commissioner) Shri Wajahat Habibullah forwarded copies of suggestion ‘Reforming towards a qualitative democracy’ to Presidents of leading national parties. Queries can now put with political parties on action taken on such suggestions forwarded to them. It will reveal their view-points towards much-needed and long-awaited poll-reforms in a highly polluted political system where present democratic set-up in India has been regrettably gets practically redefined as a system for the politicians, by the politicians and of the politicianswhat was dreamt by our constitution-makes to be a system for the people, by the people and of the people.
If political parties would have been sincere towards such poll-reforms which also include proving citizens their constitution right for ‘None-To-Vote’ on Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) rather than through present non-secret provision presently under article 49(o), then picture of political set up would have been altogether different for a better set-up in real interest of people where presently voters have option to select from several put before them by political parties even though they may not want to vote for any of them. If poll-reforms repeatedly recommended by Election Commission would have recommended, perhaps idea of filing petition for bringing political parties under RTI Act would not have emerged at all.
Some political leaders have passed irresponsible comments that political parties are not retail-shops on which RTI Act can be implemented. Firstly RTI Act is not applicable on retail-shops (private). Are all other public-authorities including even high offices of President, Prime Minister, Rajya Sabha, Lok Sabha, Supreme Court or High Courts are functioning like retail-shops because these are covered under RTI Act? It is unfortunate to see such comments for the wonderful Act passed by these politicians themselves in the supreme Parliament of the nation.
A major 60-percent of total RTI petitions were filed by government-employees themselves to redress their employment-related aspects. Same is likely to happen when grass-root workers of political parties may quiz their own parties on imposing candidates by their political bosses ignoring their grass-root work tend to induce internal democracy in their own parties. Political parties will be answerable to even such queries if RTI petitions are drafted with due care and advanced knowledge of RTI Act because verbal deliberations not being part of material record are not permitted to be replied under RTI Act.
However responsibly and properly drafted RTI petitions may tend to adversely affect those politicians misusing politics like business-shops for minting money by unfair means.
(Writer is a Guinness Record Holder for letters in newspapers and an RTI Activist)