Activists Criticise Rahul's Defence of Parties Not Complying With RTI

Activists said Gandhi's statement that other public institutions should be brought under the Act's purview is “half-hearted and ill-informed”.

New Delhi: Last week, speaking to some university students, Congress president Rahul Gandhi defended his party’s exclusion from the purview of the Right to Information Act. He insisted that he was “all for transparency” but if the Act is applied to just political parties and not institutions like the judiciary, industry, media and bureaucracy, it “will weaken the political parties”.

During the meeting with university students, Gandhi described every political party as “Janata ka institution” and added that “transparency should increase 100%”.

But he questioned why other institutions were not covered by it. “If you talk about political parties, then why not RTI in judiciary, why not RTI in press, why not RTI in bureaucracy for individual bureaucrats?” He also took credit on behalf of his party for bringing in the transparency law.

This argument has not gone down well with leading RTI and transparency activists. They say Gandhi should have declared that the Congress would commit itself to the Act and thereby mount pressure on other national parties – including the ruling BJP – to follow suit.’

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Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative termed Gandhi’s statement “half-hearted and ill-informed”.

“I think as the president of the party which was in power when the RTI Act was enacted in parliament, his statement, is not only ill-informed in some parts but also indicative of inadequate understanding of the RTI as a fundamental right,” he said.

Nayak said the Right to Information was declared as a fundamental right in 1975 and RTI Act was recognised as a law in 2005. “Six national political parties have already been declared as public authorities by the Central Information Commission and that order has not been challenged anywhere till date. But the Congress and the other five national parties – BJP, BSP, NCP, CPI and CPI(M) – have been stubbornly non-compliant.”

The rights activist said Gandhi should understand that compliance with a fundamental right by his party, which is a duty-holder, in this matter cannot be contingent on conditionalities.

“If the law says you are covered, as it does right now, irrespective of who else is covered or not, you have to comply with it,” he explained.

RTI already covers judiciary and bureaucracy

Further, Nayak said, the RTI already covers the judiciary and the bureaucracy. “The Supreme Court and the high courts have recognised this. As far as bureaucracy is concerned, the bureaucrats are adequately covered with the exception of the 26 of the exempt organisations. But there too, they are partially covered for allegations of human rights violation and corruption. So there is no exception there.”

As for the industrialists and media houses, he said “They too can certainly be covered if they meet any of the criteria which brings them under the definition of public authority. Otherwise the RTI law would have to be amended to bring them in, which is desirable.”

Nayak said because Gandhi termed political parties as “Janata ka institution”, it was incumbent for people to know everything that can be fairly disclosed about their operations.

Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information said the judiciary, the executive and the legislature are already classified as public authorities under the Act’s definition. “However, there may be a problem with implementation. So in the judiciary, information about the judges, their assets and their appointment process is often denied.”

She also reiterated that the CIC order of June 2013 had declared all national parties as public authorities. “No court has stayed or struck down that order,” Bhardwaj said.

So, she said, the non-compliance of the parties was “disobedience”.

The CIC has already declared all national parties as public authorities. Illustration: The Wire

‘Political parties have much to hide’

Bhardwaj said the RTI law covers any authority that is owned or controlled by the government like ministries, departments and public sector undertakings. It also covers any institution or undertaking that is substantially financed by the government. “Political parties fall under this category. They get tax exemption, land to build their offices, etc.”

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She said the political parties do not share information on their funding, which is one of the major causes of corruption. “The fountainhead of corruption in India is political party funding. There is no transparency in it. The income tax law and other laws that govern political parties state they do not have to disclose the source of donations up to Rs 2,000. So many of them show large number of donations of smaller value to avoid disclosure.”

RTI would empower people question funding and expenditure

Under the RTI Act, she said, “Citizens have the right to ask these parties the source of these donations and seek copies of receipts. They will also have to disclose where they spent the money.”

Bhardwaj said the BJP has received a lot of money in electoral bonds and insists this is white money. But, she said, “Using the RTI, people can ask them where they would be spending it or have spent it.”

Also, she said, compliance with the RTI Act would empower people to question the parties about their decision making processes, including ticket-distribution.

“While funding is the most important thing, other things like policies could also be questioned. So if a party says that it is for women empowerment but gives a lot of tickets to men accused of sexual violence, people would be able to extract this information and question it,” she said.