By Bhanupriya Rao
Engaging with our MPs can be fun, you know. I insist you try it. A load of us did. We were left in that strange zone where anger meets helplessness meets pity meets humor.
It all started when word got around that the Cabinet had cleared the amendments to the Right to Information Act, 2005, which are intended to keep the political parties out of the purview of the Act. The CIC, if you remember, had ruled that political parties are public bodies as they receive substantial indirect funding from the government. In an act of uncharacteristic swiftness, the amendments were cleared by the Cabinet and are ready to be tabled on the 12th August in the Lok Sabha. In another act of never-before-seen unity, the opposition and the Government are singing from the same hymn sheet to pass the Bill to keep their collective interests locked from public scrutiny.
Our frustrations were reaching fever-pitch, when Suresh Ediga, a software engineer based in New Jersey, came up with an innovative campaign idea: RTI Call-a-Thon. The idea was to call our constituency MP and ask them their personal opinion on whether they thought the political parties should be left out of the RTI Act as well as to ask them to vote against it. For, that is what we citizens who voted them to represent us, wanted them to do.
Since then, hundreds of MPs have been contacted both by phone, email and SMS from both within India and abroad. Shailesh Gandhi, the former Chief Information commissioner found this innovative and made calls to 15 MPs which he has posted on his Facebook page. We created a Facebook page to log in the responses that we were getting. Some angered us, some amused us, some made us pity them. But each one of it was worth the time we spent in talking to them.
Most found the identity ‘concerned citizen’ alien. I called LK Advani’s office and was asked if I was a journalist by his staff. I replied in the negative, told him I was a ‘concerned citizen’ and begged to ask him why he thought so? His reply was ‘ I thought so because you are demanding to know Advaniji’s stand’. That demanding answers was a citizen’s job was a fascinating new concept for them. After a couple of calls, Advaniji’s response to my questions(through his staff) was that the amendments are being brought about by the Government. ‘We have nothing to do with this’. But does he support it? Will his part vote for it? He refused to say.
P Chidambaram demanded to know where the caller got his number from? Er….Sir, It is openly listed on the Lok Sabha directory. He then went on to rant that it was not his business to answer to a ‘nobody like you’.
Sitaram Yechury bellowed back at a caller saying he did not have to answer to her as she was not a member of his party. ‘You cannot sit somewhere else and tell me how I should vote in the Parliament’ was his reply. That is how it works, Mr Yechury. We elect you so that you act on our behalf.
Most, cutting across party lines, parroted a familiar line ‘I will go with the party’s command’. When one MP was asked if he had no personal opinion on this issue, he helplessly rued ‘My opinion has no value’. The caller probed further asking what if as a constituent, he urged him to vote against the amendments, the MP descended further into a cesspool of pity saying ‘If I don’t follow the party line, I won’t be given a ticket next time. Will you RTI fellows come and help me then?’
Some received our messages and politely replied that they noted our concerns, thank you very much. Ravi Shankar Prasad (BJP) was politely non-committal, but he did hear the caller out. Yet, there were others who had a meaningful conversation around these amendments with us. Some did concede that they believed that political parties should be brought under the Act and that they should not be above public scrutiny. Mr Anand Rao of Shiv Sena wrote a long email to a member of the public explaining why he thought that the CIC was wrong to issue the order. His contention was that CIC or any other body should not encroach into law making function as that was the business of the Parliament.
Numerous tweets have been aimed in the direction of Sushma Swaraj, Sharad Pawar, Jay Panda et al. While they are happy squabbling with each other on twitter, there was complete silence on the RTI.
This exercise has shocked some of the MPs while others remain nonchalant. Hordes of people calling them personally and asking them vote against a Bill has been entirely new to them. Some have thanked us for doing so, while others were livid at our audacity.
So why are we still calling our MPs knowing that we might be stonewalled? Why are we taking out time from our schedules, some from a variety of timezones, knowing that the least we would get to is a member of their staff? Why are we bothering while we do know how strangely strong the party unity is on this issue?
The answer, in our minds, is simple. Because not doing anything is not an option. Because a vote every five years is not the only way we would like to be engaged with our democracy. Because, as citizens, we would like to start the process of meaningful engagement with our law-makers. And above all, the Right to Information became a reality after a 25 year long struggle when poor peasants and workers engaged with their governments to ask for the accounts of their daily wages. Because I refuse to let the sweat of the struggle of those workers and peasants dry in vain. Because, if I don’t, then who will?
We have just a few days to make our voice count. Here are few things you can do to save the RTI Act. Join the Call-a-Thon. Find your MP here and make that call. Like I said before, it is meaningful and it is fun.
Bhanupriya Rao is a concerned Indian Citizen, a category unknown to most of our MPs. She tweets @bhanupriyarao