For political parties, whose leaders control the lives of millions, to seek exceptions to the Right to Information (RTI) is not only bad politics but also cynically bad behaviour. The recent decision of the Central Information Commission making such disclosures possible is like a whiff of fresh air in the musty corridors of Indian politics.
Why should any political party hide its income-tax (I-T) returns if it has nothing to hide? The fact that almost all parties are united in not acceding to such requests shows that India’s rulers don’t know that times have changed. The argument that such disclosures do not serve public interest is not even worth arguing about: Information on political party funding is a must in any democracy worth its name. Meanwhile, even the judiciary, held to be one of the last well-functioning institutions, is demanding exception to the RTI law.
Beyond RTI-enforced disclosures, however, much more is required to tame such egregious behaviour. Indian politics has what economist Timothy Besley calls an adverse “attractiveness ratio”. This is a measure that compares the rents and pelf that accrue to politicians versus returns they get from public service motivation and wages. This suggests institutional remedies can tackle issues, such as hiding I-T returns.
Like the politicians, the judiciary has no reason not to accede to RTI requests. But unlike institutional rearrangements that are possible in case of politicians, tinkering with the judicial order may not be easy or feasible or even desirable.
Unlike the legislature, that can be held accountable by citizens, and the executive that can be pulled up by the judiciary, the latter has no external check.
One stopgap solution could be to clarify the RTI law so that there can be as few exceptions to it as possible. In fact, this is an appropriate moment to redefine parts of the RTI Act so that public authorities can’t evade information requests. It’s politically feasible, too. After facing heat due to disclosures forced by the RTI Act, there are signs of consensus that no state authority be immune from its purview, save for reasons of national security. This consensus should be cemented and not allowed to dissipate.
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