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Undermining the RTI Act: Why MPs won't speak their mind

It is unusual, almost unexpected, to find Indian lawmakers expressing willingness to open their accounts to public scrutiny. But that is what happened when at least six Parliamentarians proactively stated their opinion that the Right to Information (RTI) Act should cover political parties, irrespective of the position taken by their respective parties. This came at a time when the entire political class stood united batting for immunity to itself from being covered by the transparency legislation. Though the number of daring MPs is not overwhelming, it has prompted a debate on the freedom exercised by Parliamentarians while taking a stand on crucial issues.

The RTI (Amendments) Bill 2013, if passed, will set aside the June 3 order of the Central Information Commission (CIC) bringing six national parties under the RTI Act. All national parties batted for the passage of the amendments. Among the crucial regional parties that opposed it were the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Trinamool Congress (TMC).

But much before the parties declared their positions on the issue, six politicians came in support of transparency legislation: Milind Deora (Congress), Omar Abdullah (NC), Baiayant Panda (BJD), Dinesh Trivedi (TMC), Raghuvansh Prasad Singh (RJD) and Jaiprakash Narain (Jansatta party).

On important matters, parties issue a whip, making clear their stand. As per the tenth schedule of the Constitution, MPs are required to comply with the party whip to avoid disqualification. However, the popular perception is that even without the party issuing a whip, members hardly go against the party’s position. They abide by the party line, without exercising their own freedom of speech and expression. It is in this context that the stand of six Parliamentarians regarding the RTI is an exception.

On Thursday, the government sent the Bill to the Standing Committee. Had voting happened in the Lok Sabha, chances were that majority of MPs would have toed the party line and voted in favour of amendments, said Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a Delhi-based NGO.

 Undermining the RTI Act: Why MPs wont speak their mind

A protest against the amendment in the RTI. AFP

“If a whip has not been issued then should not MPs vote on the Bill according to their conscience and not party leaders' whims? MPs are elected not merely to represent their parties in Parliament. They primarily represent the entire constituency which they got elected from,” Nayak said.

Nikhil Dey of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, which spearheaded the movement to get the RTI law enacted, said that space for individual voices was shrinking in various parties.

“Not all the party members are consulted when the party high command or top rung leaders decide on policy matters. Therefore, the attitude of party members is that when they don’t know about a certain issue, why should they apply their minds and take risk?” he said.

That MPs rarely use their own conscience while taking a line on policy matters was documented in a campaign started by a group of Indian citizens based in the US and UK in August, soon after the government introduced the Bill to amend the RTI Act.

As part of the initiative called RTI Call-a-Thon, the campaigners made phone calls to around 350 MPs and sought their opinions on bringing political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act. All the interactions were recorded.

Out of 100 BJP MPs who were contacted, 30 said they were in favour of bringing political parties under the transparency legislation, but said that on the day of voting they would be bound by the party whip and vote as the party decides. Navjot Singh Sidhu (Amritsar) described it as team work in a democracy. Vishnu Deo Sai (Raigarh) expressed helplessness calling himself a ‘small fish’ who had to listen to his ‘big leaders’.

Baijayant Panda, the MP from Kendrapara, Odisha, was among the first ones to oppose the amendments. He wrote to the Lok Sabha speaker saying that the Bill should be referred to the Standing Committee. Panda also tried to get MPs from other parties on board.

On September 3, the MP posted on his Facebook page, “My initial letter to the Hon'ble Speaker to refer it to a standing committee (where the public can also contribute suggestions) was turned down; but subsequently, all the combined efforts started yielding results, and two other MPs (Ajoy Kumar and Dinesh Trivedi) also took a stand, writing to the Speaker on the same lines. Today, we had the additional gratification of having Sushma Swaraj, Gurudas Dasgupta, and some other leaders also join in making the same demand. Separately, Arun Jaitley is rumoured to have told his party that this proposed amendment is unconstitutional. Even some UPA MPs are reportedly concerned. However, not all parties are on board”

Milind Deora, the union minister of state for communications and IT made clear his stand to the Call- a- Thon team. “Government would be sending the wrong optics by amending the RTI Act,” he said.

Earlier this week, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah pitched for transparency. "All the money I get or my party gets, we get tax exemptions. I am accountable to not just my legislature or to the Income Tax department but also to the people of India,” said Abdullah at the CIC annual convention in New Delhi.

In the absence of a whip, what line the MP takes is decided by whether the Parliamentarian depends more on the party support or the support of his constituency, said Jagdeep Chhokar, founder and trustee of Association for Democratic Reforms, an organisation working for transparency and accountability in governance.

“If an MP believes that his political career totally depends on the party he belongs to and the voters in his or her constituency will not have much say in it, then the MP is bound to bid for the party line. This is especially true for the MPs who don’t stick to one constituency. But if there is a Parliamentarian who is confident enough about speaking his or her own mind irrespective of the party position, it is not necessary that the MP will vote as per the party’s choice.”

He added, “Most of the MPs fall in the former category.”

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Updated Date: Sep 06, 2013 11:50:30 IST