Going for a World Record in India

29 April 2014

By Venkatesh Nayak

Nayak is Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

Last year when the Central Government threatened to amend the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) to keep all political parties out of its ambit completely, many of you joined a nationwide signature campaigns to oppose the move. Thankfully, this proposal has been put on the backburner for now although it may be revived under the new political dispensation that may emerge after 16th May when the results of Parliamentary elections are declared.

During the public awareness raising efforts around the RTI Amendment Bill, I had debated with Mr. Manoj Mitta of Times of India (ToI) about the likely impact of transparency on the transactions of political parties. As several colleagues and friends in the RTI movement had differences of opinion about whether to bring political parties completely under the RTI Act or not, we were trying to find a common ground. (It is another matter that at an individual level I have since moved on to support and demand complete and unqualified degree of transparency in the functioning of political parties.)

When we were then toying with the idea of limiting transparency of political parties to their financial affairs only, Mr. Mitta drew my attention to the annual audited statement of accounts and contribution reports of political parties that were already being displayed on the website of the Election Commission of India. So what did we seek to achieve by opposing the removal of political parties from the RTI Act, if we limited our demands to financial transparency was the question. This proactive disclosure seems to be an outcome of the RTI interventions made by the Association of Democratic Reforms and the prolific RTI activist Mr. Subhash Chandra Agarwal.

Audited Party Statements Surface

Surfing through the annual accounts reports of various political parties I came across a letter written by the Election Commission of India to the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) in May 2013, forwarding the audited statement of accounts of 17 small State level parties for further action.

In December that year I filed an RTI application with the CBDT asking for details of action taken on the ECI’s letter. I have always wondered why similar statements of accounts of the National Parties and the bigger State Parties were not sent to the CBDT in the same manner. However as one cannot ordinarily ask questions such as “why did you not do something” under the RTI Act, this issue remains a mystery for me.

Bundles of Mail

Little did I realise that my RTI application would end up making the Dept. of Income Tax (which is under the CBDT) to spend more than Rs. 100,000 on processing my RTI application and sending me replies by Speed Post and Registered Post (apart from copying them to several superior officers). I received more than 500 replies from the IT circles across the country.

While I was horror struck by the amount of public money spent on sending replies to my RTI application, the Postal Dept. was quite happy to deliver bundles of replies over weeks, so much so that my Postman actually asked to meet me to find out why I was receiving so many packets from the IT Dept. every day. I have compiled the replies received on a MSExcel sheet to how where all my RTI application was sent including those IT circles where none of the 17 political parties were even registered.

I have done a brief summary of the replies received including the funny ones. Some IT officers denied access to information saying that the personal privacy clause of the RTI Act covered the information I had sought. Some others denied access as I had not paid them the RTI application fee separately. One IT officer thought I was asking information about BCCI’s IT Returns (Hey Tirupati Srinivasa mujhe bachao!). Another thought I was asking information about IT Returns of cine stars (I wonder which of my favourites he had in mind).

Perhaps I should claim a citation in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most number of RTI replies received or should concede it to the IT Officers for sending funniest RTI replies (although I might have serious competition from Mr. Shyamlal Yadav of Indian Express and Mr. SC Agarwal in this area).

Mr. Mitta has published a story in ToI today on this RTI adventure of mine linking it to the efforts being made by various actors for greater transparency in the functioning of political parties. This story is accessible at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/lok-sabha-elections-2014/news/Political-funding-spending-still-remain-opaque/articleshow/34352325.cms

Last year I filed a 2nd RTI application with the Ministry of Home Affairs which received a CD containing all contribution reports of all National and State political parties from the Election Commission asking them to take further action on the contents of their contribution reports (5th and 6th attachment). The MHA replied to me that no intervention was required as all donations were local and no foreign funds were involved and some parties had filed NIL returns. They also sent a copy of a notesheet where this matter was discussed internally and found no reason to take any action. Thankfully, the MHA spent only a reasonable amount of money on sending me a reply. Yet they were only rubber stamping the disclosure made by the political parties instead of launching a proper inquiry into such matters like the ECI probably wanted them to do

A Farce of Regulation

What these twin exercises made me realise is the farce that is being acted out in the name of regulation of political parties in financial matters under the electoral laws.

This is why the option of making political parties transparent regarding their finances alone will not work. They must be made directly answerable to the people during and more importantly between elections. RTI is the best option for doing this. I am not interested in the personal or amorous affairs of politicians.

However I want to know everything that must be known about any political party that seeks my vote during elections and then seeks to represent me in Parliament and the State Legislatures. This is a fundamental requirement of any truly functional representative democracy. This is non-negotiable.

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