Some people, however conversant with the law, will not read the law in its spirit. They even want to be above the law. Those who have been listening to Union information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari, a lawyer by training, will be inclined to agree. Commenting on the ruling by the Central Information Commission (CIC) that political parties are also subject to the Right to Information (RTI) Act, Tewari said, “This is a curious attempt to try and stretch the scope of the Act.” In short, he thinks the RTI law was never meant for political parties in the first place; the CIC was wrong to force-fit parties under its ambit. Tewari speaks for the Congress, but the other national parties named in the order—the BJP, BSP, CPI(M), CPI and JD(U)—agree with him. They all contend they need not submit to the searchlight because they are neither partially nor fully funded by the government.
The free airtime political parties get on All-India Radio and Doordarshan, they say, hardly matters—it’s too little, and given only around election time, so how can it possibly bind them to accountability? As for the land the parties get to run their offices from, well, who doesn’t get government land at rock-bottom prices? The mantra, after all, is quid pro quo. Famous sons-in-law, by the way, could do without the pro quo. As for the money that oils politics, much of it of the darkest shade of darkness, why would every citizen want to know of it? How does a citizen benefit from knowing which business bankrolled which party for which election? That pretty much sums up the outrage of those who do not want to be bound by a law they themselves have enacted.
But surely the spirit of the law matters? It is not just about the land on which parties have their offices or the airtime they get. And it’s not about whether or not political parties are funded by public money. They must remember that it was after a huge struggle by well-intentioned individuals and organisations that the RTI Act was passed. And Tewari might need reminding that it was his party that birthed the bill: the glass walls behind which much of governance functions today are, in a way, the Congress’s baby.
What were the MPs thinking when they passed the Act back then? Did they seriously think it was only for the bureaucracy “out there”? And from the manner in which the Congress-led UPA is resisting the order, one wonders if it is no longer serious about an Act that occupied pride of place on its list of achievements. There is a strange irony—which people will say they are by now used to—in parliamentarians legislating a law for the entire country and its government but keeping themselves out its purview. When campaigners for RTI were debating its how and why, the government had then dug its heels in, saying the Act might be misused—strange, considering that, as statuted, the information commissioners were to be senior bureaucrats, well-versed in the art of denying information. Much in the same way, political parties are getting worked up over “too much information” in the public domain.
Just imagine the scenario if the Trinamool Congress were asked, via RTI, to go public with the links of its members with the Saradha group, which faces charges of cheating the public of crores of rupees in small investments. Or if the BJP were asked how the mining brothers of Bellary funded them? Did money really change hands during the trust vote that bailed out the UPA in 2008?
So yes, the potential of the Act is enormous. And so are the worries of the parties. For now, the CIC order is limited to the Congress, BJP and four other parties, but is to be extended gradually to all parties eventually. In the cynical age we live in, the citizen has a right to know the circumstances under which a party extends support to bail out a government in crisis. He has a right to know if a graft-tainted party will be let off if it supports a government.
These are important matters. Parties don’t function in a vacuum. The occupy public space, get tax breaks, give public speeches, get land when not in power and gift land to other parties and businesses when in power. Through their MPs, they exercise control over the government. Why shouldn’t they be treated as public organisations? If they open their activities and their account books to scrutiny, they will be seen as more trustworthy. In this cynical age we live in, it is only apt that transparency informs all levels of governance—both within and without. Full disclosure should be the default setting of every political party.