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New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image is ubiquitous and can be seen in government ads, vaccine certificates and the like. It is also a very large part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electioneering. No wonder then that people appear curious on aspects relating to it.
In the past, people have used the Right to Information (RTI) Act to learn about Modi’s BA Degree from Delhi University’ and also the money spent by the government on his wardrobe. However, more often than not, such questions have got stonewalled by government departments.
But this has not deterred people from seeking information about their prime minister, even if some of them appear mundane.
Recently, several questions pertaining to Modi’s appearance and the salary he draws came up before the Central Information Commission (CIC).
During the first wave of the COVID-19 in 2020, which triggered a nationwide lockdown, barber shops remained shut. For several months, people stayed indoors and avoided going to salons. This was also the time when Modi’s change of appearance – long hair and white beard – was noticeable.
The prime minister’s look lasted until after the West Bengal assembly elections in April 2021. On August 15, 2021, too, when he addressed the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort, Modi sported a longer beard and hair than usual.
But by the time of his US visit in September 2021, Modi was seen with a trimmed beard and shortened hair.
In May 2020, an RTI applicant, Nilesh G. Prabhu, had filed an application to know if the lockdown had also impacted the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues as much as ordinary citizens – as far as visiting barbers’ shops was concerned.
He also asked how many times Modi got his hair cut between March 19, 2020 and May 4, 2020, and if Modi’s Cabinet colleagues also got their hair cut during the period.
Prabhu asked for details of the person or barber who may have performed these tasks.
CIC found the plea ‘absurd, frivolous’
Initially, the prime minister’s office (PMO) gave no response. But Prabhu pursued the matter until the first appellate authority directed it to furnish a response.
The public information officer (PIO) responded saying that the “information sought is personal in nature and is exempt from disclosure under Section 8(1)(j) of the Right to Information Act, 2005.”
Prabhu then approached the CIC which recently held that “an appropriate response” had already been provided and that the appellant had not been able to justify that a “larger public interest” was involved in his plea.
It also held that “the query raised in the application is rather absurd, frivolous and vexatious, clearly amounting to the misuse of the provisions of the Act.”
PMO cited Salaries Act on question on Modi’s wages
In July 2020, another RTI applicant, Satish Kumar Agarwal, had approached the CIC seeking information on the prime minister’s salary.
The PIO replied that the prime minister’s salary and allowances were paid in accordance with the Salaries and Allowances of Ministers Act, 1952 that has been amended from time to time.
Not satisfied with the reply or the subsequent answer from the first appellate authority, which upheld the PIO’s reply, Agarwal had filed a second appeal with the CIC in the matter. In its order, the CIC disposed of the appeal saying, “perusal of the records of the case reveals that information available on record with the public authority as defined under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act, has been duly disclosed, in terms of the Act.”
A similar appeal was filed by Anil Kumar Agarwal in June 2020.
He had asked for the total wages paid to Modi since he became prime minister. In his case too, the PMO’s reply was the same. The chief information commissioner Y.K. Sinha disposed of the appeal with an almost identical order which read:
“Perusal of the documents of the case reveals that information available on record with the public authority as defined under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act has been duly disclosed. The Appellant has not appeared to buttress his case hence, it is not possible to ascertain the cause of his dissatisfaction with the facts of the matter at hand. Under the given circumstances, the Commission is not inclined to entertain further adjudication in this case.”