What was Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi playing for when he waved a newspaper article at his election meetings on Monday and cited a Rs 1,880 crore figure as being the amount spent by the UPA government on Congress president Sonia Gandhi‘s foreign trips? Modi said he wasn’t basing that figure on just a media report, but on the fact that the amount was disclosed in response to an application filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
It appears, however, that in this case, Modi may have gotten his facts a trifle muddled. On the face of it, the Rs 1,880 crore figure seems monstrously high, even given the many inventive ways that the UPA government has dreamt up in recent years for blowing up public money. Secondly, the Right to Information activist Ramesh Verma, whose application forms the basis for the controversial newspaper report, claims that he has thus far not secured any information on his request for details of public spending on Sonia Gandhi‘s foreign trips.
Congress spokespersons have in turn turned the heat on Modi. Digvijay Singh said that Modi, being an RSS functionary, was given to lying loudly and repeatedly. Manish Tewari said that Modi owes an apology to the Congress and to the people of Gujarat for amplifying “a lie”. Modi has since said that he would apologise if the facts reveal that he was in the wrong. You can be sure that the last word hasn’t been said on this subject.
Beyond the political back-and-forth, which is par for the course in any election cycle, the issue raises several questions about the extent to which our leaders ought to, but aren’t, held accountable.
The facts of the case are as under: Verma filed his RTI application in February 2010. In it he had asked three questions: How many trips had Sonia Gandhi undertaken in the past 10 years? In what capacity had she undertaken these trips, and how much had been spent on them? Thirdly, what had the country gained from Sonia Gandhi’s visits abroad?
Since no information was forthcoming, he petitioned the Central Information Commissioner, who nudged the Prime Minister’s Office to furnish the information sought. That started a frenetic round of file-passing between the Prime Minister’s Office, the Exterenal Affairs Ministry and the Parliamentary Affairs Ministry.
Unable to break the endless loop of buck-passing, Verma again wrote to the Central Information Commission. In June 2011, Chief Information Commissioner Satyanand Mishra pulled up the Prime Minister’s Office for its “casual handling” of the RTI application and asked it to ensure that in future any application for information was sent only to the ministries concerned.
Even to this day, however, Verma has not secured the information he had sought.
But in July 2012, more than two years after he filed his RTI petition, Hindustan Samachar, a Hindi-language news agency, put out a report claiming that Verma’s RTI application had revealed that Rs 1,880 crore had been spent on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign trips. On the face of it, that report appears to have been factually incorrect – since Verma insists he has not secured any information on his petition – but was nevertheless published by many newspapers (such as this one).
It was one such media report, erroneously citing the Rs 1,880 crore figure, that Modi appears to have picked up and amplified in his public meetings on Monday.
It’s true, of course, that politicians must be held accountable for their public utterances – and, to that extent, Modi will perhaps have to dial back some of his remarks from Monday. The experience of more evolved electoral democracies shows up the primacy of fact-checking of politicians’ various claims – as the ongoing political discourse in the US shows up.
Which leads one to wonder: what was Modi thinking when he raised this issue and relying on a media report for his central claim? Did he lean too heavily on a media report, which – going by Verma’s claim – appears to be weak on factual accuracy?
Whatever Modi’s motives may have been, his claim can be easily disproved – if the Congress and the UPA government wish to. All that the government has to do is to have the answers to Verma’s questions in his RTI application answered. The questions he raises pertain not to any issue of Sonia Gandhi’s privacy – for instance, relating to her income tax returns or her health status – but on public spending on her foreign trips. Those are legitimate questions to raise.
But the runaround that Verma’s application has been subjected to for two years now, and the Congress’ reflexive resort to secrecy in all matters relating to Sonia Gandhi, effectively forces the Congress and the UPA government on the defensive on this issue. Responding to questions on a CNN-IBN show on Monday night, Manish Tewari sought to deflect attention away from Sonia Gandhi by wondering if it was legitimate to ask how much had been spent on Modi’s trips abroad, who had funded his trips, and so on. The answer, of course, that it is perfectly legitimate. What isn’t legitimate, however, is the “conspiracy of silence” that the party would prefer to maintain on the entire issue.
It’s entirely possible that the Rs 1,880 crore figure being touted is entirely erroneous; but, as political observers have noted, even if the amount is a mere Rs 18.8 crore or even just Rs 18 lakh, the principle of public accountability of elected officials requires that such information, when sought under due process of law, should be furnished. Every other MP and elected official is held up to scrutiny. Why should Sonia Gandhi be an exception?
The irony of it is that the RTI mechanism, under which the information is being sought, owes much to the UPA government. Some of the information sought may be frivolous, but the mechanism has done much to make governance procedures a lot more transparent, and even unelected officials are being held accountable on many counts – as the experience of Montek Singh Ahluwalia shows. Yet, the very mechanism of the RTI is being subverted by the opacity that surrounds these questions relating to Sonia Gandhi. In not responding to Verma’s questions, the UPA government is giving ground for criticism of its lack of transparency.
It is this that will eventually allow Narendra Modi, in this case, to reap political capital – even though he appears to have erred in relying on a factually inaccurate report to raise the issue. The government and the Congress can easily turn the heat on Modi if it releases the information sought – and it turns out that the public spending was much less than has been claimed. But their failure to do so forces them on the political defensive.