Claiming to be fortunate to belong to a “community that is under constant scrutiny”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a joint conference of chief ministers of states and chief justices of high courts on Sunday that the political "leaders who governed this country have created a large number of institutions to bind us down".
Apart from the Election Commission and the in-process Lokpal, he claimed “RTI hum par bandhan daalti hai, humne kiya hai. "(RTI also binds us, and we have passed the act.)
It is reassuring for the nation to know that the highest executive functionary of the land considers himself to be bound or controlled by the Right to Information Act. But it is disconcerting that six national political parties, including the one which has chosen the Prime Minister and of which he is undoubtedly the most powerful leader, continue to blatantly defy a decision of the full bench of the Central Information Commission, the highest statutory authority for implementing the RTI Act, holding the six national political parties to be public authorities under the statute.
The blatant defiance has continued for almost two years now and is not just limited to non-compliance with the Central Information Commission’s decision but also ignoring and not even responding to notices it sent out.
In view of this action by his party, the Prime Minister’s claim that “RTI binds” politicians sounds hollow.
It could be argued that the Prime Minister was referring to just the government and not political parties. Two facts go against such an interpretation. The first is what the Prime Minister himself said at the Sunday meet: "The community that we come from has been given a bad name. But I can say that this community [biraadari], the system [vyavastha], the political leaders [raajneta] in the government, have created institutions to bind themselves down. They have made the laws themselves." The word raajneta leaves no doubt that the PM meant “political leaders”, and political leaders obviously belong to political parties.
Secondly, even if the prime minister meant to say that only the government is covered by the RTI and not political parties, this is not sustainable. This comes from the 170th report of the Law Commission of India. In this report, titled 'Reform of the Electoral Laws', submitted in May 1999, the Law Commission said:
“On the parity of the above reasoning, it must be said that if democracy and accountability constitute the core of our constitutional system, the same concepts must also apply to and bind the political parties which are integral to parliamentary democracy. It is the political parties that form the government, man the Parliament and run the governance of the country. It is therefore, necessary to introduce internal democracy, financial transparency and accountability in the working of the political parties. A political party which does not respect democratic principles in its internal working cannot be expected to respect those principles in the governance of the country. It cannot be dictatorship internally and democratic in its functioning outside.
“With a view to introduce and ensure internal democracy in the functioning of political parties, to make their working transparent and open and to ensure that the political parties become effective instruments of achieving the constitutional goals set out in the Preamble and Parts III and IV of the Constitution of India, it is necessary to regulate by law their formation and functioning”
And, just in case there was any doubt, the Central Information Commission’s decision of June 3, 2013, clearly “held that AICC/INC, BJP, CPI(M), CPI, NCP and BSP are public authorities under section 2(h) of the RTI Act”.
Despite the clear order, political parties are killing the RTI Act aided by the information commissioners. When a complaint for non-compliance of the Central Information Commission's decision of June 3, 2013, by all the six national political parties was lodged with the Central Information Commission, a full bench consisting of three information commissioners held several hearings. None of the political parties attended the hearings, even when the Central Information Commission gave them show-cause notices. After repeated hearings and repeated notices, which were all royally ignored, the Central Information Commission pronounced a decision on March 16, saying “the Commission is bereft of the tools to get its orders complied with".
This, in itself, is a startling conclusion as a single bench of the Central Information Commission consisting of only one information commissioner, held on April 1, that it “initiate measures to prosecute officers guilty of non-compliance under Indian Penal Code for following offences.” The sections of the Indian Penal Code that were proposed to be invoked included Section 187 (Omission to assist public servant when bound by law to give assistance), and Section 188 (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant).
Why a full bench of the Central Information Commission finds itself “bereft of the tools to get its orders complied with” under the same RTI Act, using which a single bench can invoke the Indian Penal Code should be a mystery. However some people, who claim to be in the know, do not seem surprised. They claim that it has something to do with the fact that the position of the chief information commissioner has been lying vacant since August 22, 2014, when the last incumbent retired and some of the more ambitious information commissioners do not want to be seen to be annoying the political establishment.
With six national political parties blatantly defying the Central Information Commission and three information commissioners not wanting to use powers that the RTI Act grants them for fear of annoying the political establishment, how “RTI binds” political leaders is hard to fathom. If the Prime Minister wants to be true to his word, he should get at least his party to comply with the Central Information Commission’s decision of June 3, 2013, by appointing a public information officer, and relieve the three information commissioners who are not in a position to get the lawful decisions of the body complied with.
The author is a former Professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of IIM Ahmedabad.