TOP COURTS, CIC TAKE ON INDIAN POLITICIANS: THE FOUR LANDMARK DECISIONS

There should be no second thoughts to this observation that, we, the Indians, are living (or forced to live) in a pseudo-democratic set-up in the world’s largest democracy.

It is true democracy doesn’t mean unrestricted freedom. The restricted freedom that it provides with some fundamental rights is intended to maintain a healthy socioeconomic growth in the country and its tenets are uniformly applied (in theory), for the high and mighty as well as for the low and feeble.

But that is not so in India, the world’s largest democracy. The clear divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, between the politicians and the voters and between the bureaucrats and the ordinary men is getting wider.

And that is why some recent developments to restore the true spirit of democracy by pushing and promoting probity and transparency in Indian politics give stimulus to the grey-matter to think positively though there exist the pertinent questions that such developments are not free from the tentacles of the political manipulation. Politicians are already on the job to undo the good for the country (but bad for their convoluted reasons) that these decisions can bring.

On June 3, the Central Information Commission (CIC) ruled that six major political parties were public authorities and thus were under the purview of the Right To Information Act (RTI Act).

A major setback for the ‘corrupt type’ of politicians but the decision was a relief to a democracy forced to function in a suspended animation. With funding, earnings and expenditure running into billions of Rs and with enjoying multiple facilities from the government agencies, the indiscriminate run of the finances of the political parties must come under the public scrutiny to ensure transparency. Answerability to the public – it becomes all the more important with an Indian politics that is deeply soaked in corruption.

On July 5, the Supreme Court directed the Election Commission of India to frame guidelines as early as possible to regulate the poll manifestos of political parties. The court observed that freebies and promises like laptops or TV sets or gold ornaments ‘shake the roots of free and fair elections to a great degree’.

It was indeed a step overdue and must have been taken a long ago. It is silly to make promises like giving free laptops or TV sets when there is no electricity to use them. It is inhuman to promise gold ornaments when millions of the families cannot afford the basic minimum education and health expenditure. The fund that should be diverted to build resources to bring long term prosperity and so self-reliance is wasted by the politicians in these silly and senseless acts.

On July 10, the Supreme Court upheld a 2004 Patna high court ruling that had invalidated a provision made in the Representation of Peoples’ Act (RPA) to give undue benefit to the politicians. Part of the ruling by the apex court also debars politicians from contesting elections while in jail.

The provision (Section 8(4) of the RPA) by the lawmakers was a farce aimed at enabling the convicted politicians to contest elections until they had exhausted all the legal avenues like their sentencing being upheld by the Supreme Court. And given the pace of the judicial process, the political career of a politician gets over before he is sentenced ‘finally’ by a court.

There would be parleys among the politicians and sure, we are going to see the review appeals but even if we don’t analyse the long-term opportunity window that this decision would provide, even in the short-term, it is going to pay handsomely as the country is going to have important assembly and parliamentary elections in the coming months. The SC decision is going to be a milestone in checking the rapid criminalization of Indian politics.

On July 11, the Allahabad high court, in yet another landmark ruling, came down heavily on political parties holding caste-based political rallies.

The Lucknow bench of the high court banned the caste-based rallies in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state where the development politics has not been on play for quite some time to act as the call to fight the electoral battles.

Politics of India’s electorally most important state is riddled with the divisive elements of caste, religion and sectarianism. Though the court has banned such rallies in Uttar Pradesh in its decision, it is only natural that, being a high court decision, it is going to be a precedent for whole of the country.

Politicians, as they are, will try to scuttle these moves, especially the first three, in every possible way. We are already hearing the reports about an ordinance to amend the RTI Act to keep the political parties out of the ambit of the RTI Act. Then there are reports saying the government is to consult political parties on SC’s decision on ‘disqualification of lawmakers’ before approaching the top court with a review appeal.

But there indeed is hope where the courts are involved, especially the top courts like the high courts or the Supreme Court. No doubt politicians can go to any extent to manipulate the system for their selfish goals, but encroaching over the rights and decisions of the top courts, at a time when the top courts are seen as the only recourse for justice and hope available to the common man in the tidal wave of the political corruption, would be electorally unpleasant and so a tough call that no political outfit would like to take openly in the election season.

But it doesn’t mean they would take it as it comes.

Obviously, the Brethren council of politicians would keep on meeting clandestinely to see how they can still kill the spirit of these important landmark decisions.

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

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GOVERNMENT TO BRING CHANGES TO KEEP POLITICAL PARTIES OUT OF THE RTI ACT: WISH THEY HAD ACTED SO SWIFTLY TO SAVE THE UTTARAKHAND VICTIMS

It had to happen; it was not even a matter of time before we were to witness yet another shame in the name of democracy!

It was a writing on the wall that we all had read. Its precursor was made evident to us from time to time with the developments like these:

Prime Minister’s Office refuses to answer RTI query on Robert Vadra citing confidentiality

Gujarat government has not given information on Narendra Modi’s travel: RTI activist

Sonia Gandhi cites privacy, refuses to disclose info on I-T returns

No details of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign tour under RTI

Scratch a little and one would come across plenty of such reports involving politicians across the party-lines!

And so it was not even the matter of time when they decided to act. They had to act and they acted swiftly to blunt the sharpness of the democratic weapon that had grown potentially dangerous for them after a recent development.

This June (and it is still this June only), the Central Information Commission (CIC) of India ruled that the political parties were under purview of the ‘Right To Information Act’ (RTI) by rightly exploiting the elements that define a ‘public authority’ in India. The detailed report was a result of a prolonged hearing after the RTI activists approached the CIC as the political parties denied information under the RTI Act on funding related matters.

It is rare to see the Indian politicians standing united in public’s eye on an issue of social concern. Though they are similar under the skin, the vote-bank compulsions push them to act enemies to each other whether the political opposition to an issue is relevant or totally baseless.

But there come certain developments when politicians are forced to shed this ‘we are different attitudes’; developments, when we see the ugly face of Indian politics.

We witness the rare political unity on display whenever there is an event that either leads to the personal benefits of the parliamentarians like increasing salaries and perks frequently or events that might threaten their absolute run of corruption like the Lokpal Bill or the CIC decision to put the political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act.

And so, this June only, within few days of the CIC ruling, reports say the government is preparing to bring an amendment to the RTI Act or an ordinance to keep the political parties out of the RTI Act. The changes would be effective retrospective and would overrun the June 3 CIC order.

According to the reports, the Department for Personnel and Training has sent a draft of the proposed ordinance to the Law Ministry. Sources say the government is going to change the definition of the ‘public authority’ in a way so as to bring the political parties out of the RTI Act applicability.

Activists are saying they would fight it out in the court while the political parties are all praise for the government on this move.

After all, how can the law of the land that applies to the commoners, can apply to the superhuman Indian politicians?

Now, expect the ordinance or the amendment soon!

But where was this swiftness when thousands were stranded and thousands had died in the disastrous Uttarakhand flash floods? The scale of the disaster and the callous attitude of the politicians in relief and rescue efforts tell us a sorry state of affairs, a blot on the humanity and a pathogen for the democratic health of the country.

But can we question the politicians?

If they are acting so undemocratic, it is us only who are allowing them to act so. Their every move has become so predictable yet we continue making silly choices by electing them in the office, the powers of which they manipulate to exploit us.

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

POLITICAL PARTIES UNDER THE RTI ACT: OBVIOUSLY, THEY HAD TO FUME

It’s a good day with a good moment for the Indian democracy. Politicians are fuming but the common man has a reason to look up. Expect some good outcome of it even though there are clear chances of efforts to sabotage it in the days to come.

Today, the Central Information Commission of India ruled that the political parties come under the ambit of the ‘Right To Information’ Act and they need to furnish information under the provisions of the Act.
Acting on the complaint of the RTI activists Subhash Chandra Aggarwal and Anil Bairwal, the CIC bench headed by the Central Information Commissioner Satyanand Mishra ruled out that political parties are public authorities and cannot shirk away from their responsibility to ensure transparency in the public life.

In fact, the whole decision by the CIC is worth studying. It gives detailed information about how the complainants supported their case by providing additional supporting information that led to this decision today.

They provided details like the list of political parties getting land from the government for their office buildings, rented accommodation to the political parties on government premises, details of the tax- exemption claims by the political parties, state expenditure on political parties by the way of allotting free air time on All India Radio and Doordarshan (the official state media), the valuation of the properties allotted to the political parties by the government and similar other instances of indirect financing of political parties by the state.

The premium real estate allotments to the political parties by the governments (of the political parties) have been made on nominal rates and much below the market rates. Isn’t it extortion? Why the political parties need offices in posh localities of cities?

The complainants successfully protested the contention by the political parties that the political outfits were not public authorities and so didn’t come under the purview of the RTI Act by providing information about the nature of the functioning of the political parties and so the inherent public accountability of the public duty.

The basic question before the CIC in this case, as the report says, was: The question before the Commission is whether INC/AICC, BJP, CPI(M), CPI, NCP and BSP can be held to be Public Authorities under section 2(h) of the RTI Act. 

And the Commission after deliberations, sittings and hearings came to the conclusion asserting: In view of the above discussion, we hold that INC, BJP, CPI(M), CPIO, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the Central Government under section 2(h)(ii) of the RTI Act. The criticality of the role being played by these Political Parties in our democratic set up and the nature of duties performed by them also point towards their public character, bringing them in the ambit of section 2(h).    The constitutional and legal provisions discussed herein above also point towards their character as public authorities.  The order of the Single Bench of this Commission in Complaint No. CIC/MISC/2009/0001 and CIC/MISC/2009/0002 is hereby set aside and it is held that AICC/INC, BJP, CPI(M), CPI, NCP and BSP are public authorities under section 2(h) of the RTI Act. 

SOME GOOD OBSERVATION POINTS FROM THE REPORT ON THE CIC DECISION IN THE MATTER

It is this link between State power and Political Parties that has assumed critical significance in the context of the Right of Information – an Act which has brought  into  focus  the  imperatives  of  transparency  in  the  functioning  of  State institutions.  It would be facetious to argue that transparency is good for all State organs, but not so good for the Political Parties which control the most important of those organs. 

The RTI Act emphasizes that “democracy requires an informed citizenry” and that transparency of information is vital to flawless functioning of constitutional democracy.  It is nobody’s case that while all organs of the State must exhibit maximum transparency, no such obligation attaches to Political Parties. Given that Political Parties influence the exercise of political power, transparency in their  organization,  functions  and,  more  particularly,  their  means  of  funding  is  a democratic imperative, and, therefore, is in public interest”.

After various RTI applications filed to the central agencies, it was discovered that Political Parties enjoy a number of “facilities” provided to them by the government.  This is a clear instance of being “financed indirectly by funds provided  by  the  appropriate  government”  which  puts  Political  Parties squarely under the definition of ‘public authority’ as provided for in section 2(h)(d)(ii) of the RTI Act.

In addition to the 100% exemption on income under section  13A of the Income  Tax  Act,  all  the  major  Political  Parties  have  been  provided “facilities” for residential and official use by Directorate of Estates (DOE), Government  of  India,  in  New  Delhi.   They have been given offices and residential accommodations at prime locations in New Delhi (Lutyen’s Delhi) such as Akbar Road, Raisina Road, Chanakyapuri.  The rentals charged are a fraction of the market rent.  These facilities are not just provided to them at nominal rates but their maintenance, upgradation, modernization, renovation, etc. are also done at State expense. 

Equally, that  the  institution  or organization  is  not  controlled,  and  is  autonomous  is  irrelevant;  indeed,  the concept  of nongovernment organization means that it  is independent of any manner of government control in its establishment, or management. That the 47organization does not perform – or pre-dominantly performs – “public” duties, too, may not be material, as long as the object for funding is achieving a felt need of a section of the public, or to secure larger societal goals.

“To maintain the purity of elections and in particular to bring transparency in the process of election, the Commission can ask the candidates about the expenditure incurred by the Political Parties and this transparency in the process of election would include transparency of a candidate who seeks election or re-election.  In a democracy, the electoral process has a strategic role.  The little man of this country would have basis elementary right to know full particulars of a candidate who is to represent him in Parliament where laws to bind his liberty and property may be enacted.”

Yes, indeed, the little man of this country, who elects and make governments, is the most neglected of all the stakeholders who form this largest democracy on the globe, a democracy that is saddening by its pseudo-democratic functioning.

Political parties are finding it hard to accept the decision. Politicians are reacting. They would explore all the possibilities to challenge it including going to the courts. Let’s see what comes next.

There may be technicalities of the decision on which political party would come under the purview of the Act but this is a moment to think positively because this is a landmark ruling. Its sustainability lies in the future but at the moment, it has rightly slapped in the face of the hypocrisy of the political parties across the party-line (the respondents included six major political parties). This only reason is good enough to rejoice and look ahead to take the fight further for a democratic India away from the clutches of the elements killing the spirit of the country being a people’s Republic.

The whole decision makes for an interesting reading and can be accessed here:

http://www.rti.india.gov.in/cic_decisions/CIC_SM_C_2011_001386_M_111222.pdf

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/