Ah well, the Congress has played the RTI card once again. Every time it finds itself cornered on corruption charges, the Grand Old party goes back into RTI mode.
During the Congress party’s mega rally at the Ramlila ground in New Delhi on Sunday, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, claimed the RTI act as their party’s accomplishment. “We are the ones who got RTI into implementation. We introduced it so that the whole system becomes answerable to the common man. We have given the common man the greatest weapon he can have against corruption,” said Sonia Gandhi.
It’s true that UPA I passed the RTI Act.
In fact, it resurrected a legislation which was enacted during NDA regime (Freedom of Information Act, 2002), but was never notified and therefore never came into effect despite getting passed in both the houses of Parliament. A more progressive, participatory and meaningful transparency Act found mention in the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the Congress-led UPA government which came to power in May 2004.
The National Advisory Council (NAC), which was constituted to monitor the implementation of CMP, agreed to most of the recommendations made by the civil society to strengthen the Act. After much lobbying by social activists and endorsement of NAC, the RTI Bill became an Act on 13 October, 2005.
So, yes, the Gandhi clan is indeed entitled to the credit for passing the law which has opened up government departments for public scrutiny. Not only has it empowered the aam aadmi by providing him with information, it has also helped in unraveling graft within various government programs and schemes.
In fact some of the biggest scams unearthed during the last three years were made public through the RTI act.
That be said however, the government’s claims of transparency and accountability ring hollow when one weighs them against action — or lack thereof — taken by it against political leaders who were found to be indulging in graft.
“One has lost count of the number of scams reported in the last two years. But what was the outcome? Law is different for the political class. Those who are convicted are released in a few years and are back to their jobs,” said Vikram Simha, an RTI activist based in Bangalore.
Two days before the Congress rally in New Delhi, the Central Information Commission (CIC) reserved its judgment on a number of petitions demanding that political parties be covered under the RTI Act. The Congress party did not even bother to send a representative to either of the two hearings at the Commission or even respond to its notices in this regard. The party’s claim to be transparent is tested on such occasions and not in high decibel poll campaigns.
“They (Congress) cannot harp on the fact that they gave us the RTI Act, forever. They should have set the precedent by becoming the first party to come under the purview of the RTI Act. It is an opportunity lost,” said Anil Bairwal of the Association for Democratic Reforms, one of the petitioners in the matter before the CIC.
Another reason the Congress’ claim that it is the proponent of free and open information looks hollow, is because it has tried to weaken and undermine the RTI Act on a number of occasions. Events of the last six years show that had it not been for the vehement opposition from the civil society, the government would have killed the RTI Act altogether.
In 2006, less than a year after the Act came into force, government approved a bill to amend the RTI Act with the objective of removing file notings from the purview of the Act (except those related to social and development issues). Due to strong lobbying from social activists, the government did not introduce the said bill in parliament.
In 2009, there were renewed attempts to amend the Act. A report of the second administrative reforms committee recommended the exclusion of ‘frivolous’ and vexatious applications.
Then chief justice of India KG Balakrishnan, in a letter to the Prime Minister, also made a strong case for the exclusion for the exclusion of judiciary from the ambit of the RTI Act.
But in October 2009, a majority of information commissioners from across the country spoke against these proposals in a meeting called by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal department of the union government for implementation of the RTI Act.
RTI activists, including NAC member Aruna Roy, conveyed their concerns to the UPA chairperson, who, then, wrote to the Prime Minister (on 10 November, 2009) saying that in her opinion, there was no need for changes or amendments. “The only exceptions permitted, such as national security, are already well taken care of in the legislation,” wrote Sonia Gandhi.
On 24 December, 2009, Singh responded to Gandhi saying that there were some issues that could not be dealt with, except through amending the Act.
In the end, the amendments were not instituted, and civil society seemed to have got its way.
But the following year, the government tried tinkering with the act again. This time, the attempt was not to amend the act itself but the rules through which the act was implemented. In December 2010, the DoPT asked for feedback on proposed amendments to RTI rules which put a 250-word, one subject limit on each RTI application. Once again, NAC consulted stakeholders and rejected the proposed amendments. The amendments which came into effect were a diluted version of the original proposal.
What is clear now is that there are two factions within the government, at least on the matter of RTI.
“Like most political parties, the Congress party also suffers a split in itself. There is one group of people who is working for the act and wants to protect it. The other group is trying to scuttle the act. While Mrs Gandhi was instrumental in pushing for the passage of the RTI act, the Prime Minister was never enthusiastic about it,” said Shekhar Singh, a member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI).
So, yes, the Congress Party can indeed claim credit for introducing the RTI Act — but not for the fact that it is still thriving today. That is happening despite it.