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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Ask the right questions

Those who want parties under RTI have not specified whether this advances transparency or electoral reform. It is time for a more nuanced debate.

Written by Ruchi Gupta | Published: October 26, 2013 12:14:15 am

Those who want parties under RTI have not specified whether this advances transparency or electoral reform. It is time for a more nuanced debate.

The tussle around the proposed RTI amendments to nullify the CIC order bringing the six national parties under the RTI Act is notable for many reasons: first,the amendments were sent to the standing committee for deliberation despite near political unanimity. This is significant,since postponing amendments until at least the winter session means a de facto acceptance of the CIC order in the interim. This is risky terrain,since the CIC is a wild card — it could hold complaints in abeyance given that the matter is under parliamentary deliberation,or it could pass another adverse order bringing more negative publicity for these parties. The standing committee too has been unusually consultative,travelling to multiple states for public consultation. The decision is thus an outcome of considerable political will and shows the political class to be less insular than its depiction of late.

The CIC order,though not divorced from the current,overwhelmingly anti-political context,appears to have been in good faith. The CIC is tasked with upholding the RTI,which is unequivocal that all institutions/ authorities that get substantial (not majority) public funding are obligated to the transparency provisions of the act. Therefore,the CIC could not have held otherwise going by facts alone. However,parties occupy a unique position,operating within both formal and informal political space,and cannot be treated on par with a state instrumentality. Whether or not the CIC recognised this distinction is immaterial. It does not have the amplitude to accommodate this distinction. Unfortunately,the response to the order too has only been political,with the debate split between advocating for or against it,based on tactical considerations rather than principles. Referring the amendments to the standing committee has thus provided an opportunity for nuanced deliberation.

The largely tactical response of civil society is understandable. There is apprehension that “nuance” will imply amendments to the RTI Act and that amendments,if conceded,will open the floodgates to other dilutions. But it is significant that these amendments were limited to nullifying the CIC order and did not attempt to “slip in” other amendments. This may be because the political class is cognisant of the overt anti-politician mood that is undermining their ability to resist increasing assertion (and sometimes overreach) by other institutions,and that it is important to shore up popular support through sensitivity to public perception. So,the apprehension of wholesale dilution of the RTI Act is perhaps overstated. The second reason for civil society’s stance is that,even while political parties are agents of people’s will,they have been historically recalcitrant towards demands for their own transparency and accountability. Third,part of the reason why parties are being held to the same standard of transparency as state instrumentalities is that it is difficult to disaggregate power exercised by them in the informal economy from state political power,since the latter is often used to expand and cement the former. Finally,parties are perceived as having squandered legitimacy through unchecked abuse of power and overt opportunism. The CIC order is thus seen as a way to checkmate the political class.

While this intransigence may make sense in the short term,it is also blurring the democratic principles of accountability and creating a slippery slope that may be self-defeating in the long run. There is a lack of intellectual clarity in this debate — it is unclear if the proponents want transparency or electoral reform. If it is the former,the RTI may not measurably advance the transparency of parties. It can only enforce disclosure of information that exists as a record,and records need be maintained only as required by law. The existing legislative framework for the operation of political parties is loose and does not mandate documentation of any significant processes. Bringing parties under the RTI will force the disclosure of their donor list,but again,as per law,they are only required to document donor information for contributions above Rs 20,000. As many people have observed,about 75 per cent of contributions are below this threshold. This information is already available under the RTI,which allows disclosure of third-party information held by a public authority in public interest.

It is true though that bringing parties under the RTI will create the space to demand the documentation of transactional processes,such as financial dealings. Some have also argued that bringing parties under the RTI will force the formalisation of internal processes and create space for democratic reform. This argument is fallacious,since the fear of disclosure can equally incentivise ad-hocism. Moreover,it is not clear if the lack of transparency of process is the primary problem. The fact that candidates are selected by a few individuals in most parties is not a secret,and bringing political parties under the RTI will not change this,given the personalised nature of power in parties.

There are other questions that need clarification. For instance,on what grounds does accountability that arises purely from financial subsidies go beyond the flow of said monies? It may be argued that the accountability of political parties stems more from the power they wield than the public funding they receive. The contours of this accountability must be defined before fixing the manner of its operationalisation. Parties have shown that they are not completely tone-deaf to public opinion. The centre of gravity in politics has perceptibly shifted. Hopefully,the RTI civil society will use this opportunity to debate this issue based on principles,instead of only taking a tactical short-term view.

The writer is a Delhi-based activist

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