Transparency in Indian politics

The Indian society is hungry for more accountability in public life and political parties would do well to respond


One of the big unanswered questions in Indian political life is the process determining the selection of candidates. Photo: HT
One of the big unanswered questions in Indian political life is the process determining the selection of candidates. Photo: HT

Recently, several tell-all books have emerged analysing the personality characteristics of politicians in the previous government, as well as relationships between important government and political party figures. There are claims in these books about power and control in government, the delegation and centralization of authority at the highest levels of politics, and the appropriate relationship between the political party and the government.

Judging from the reactions to these books, the authors—Tavleen Singh, Sanjaya Baru, and Natwar Singh—have touched on sensitive topics, which are not just sensitive for the subjects of their books. The claims and counter-claims by the authors and their subjects have sparked off an enormous debate, providing fodder for heated conversations in drawing rooms around our country.

Vicarious pleasure in knowing more about the private lives of famous people is an initially obvious, but ultimately unsatisfactory explanation for the demonstrated interest in these books and discussions about these topics. I believe that the allure of these recent revelations stems from a critically important deficiency in Indian public life: the utter lack of transparency about the financing and internal functioning of Indian political parties.

Let’s start with political financing. To refresh memories, we learnt in 2013 from important work done by the Association for Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch that roughly 75% of funding received by Indian political parties over the previous decade came from anonymous donors. These organizations reconciled income tax returns filed by the major parties with the disclosures made to the Election Commission to arrive at this figure. Roughly Rs. 5,000 crore (or roughly $800 million) was received by these parties over the period, and across parties, the fraction coming from undisclosed sources varied between 40% and 100%.

When a Right to Information (RTI) request was filed to elicit more details, the parties demurred, claiming that they didn’t fall under the purview of the relevant Act. The Central Information Commission bravely disagreed with the parties, and ruled that they did indeed fall under the ambit of the Act. Of course, the usual alteration of legislation to fit current objectives kicked in, and the ruling UPA-II government introduced the infamous Right to Information Amendment Bill, 2013, to specifically exclude political parties from RTI requests.

Progress on this issue has just received a huge setback, with the current government declaring on the 31 July that it will support this RTI Amendment Bill. This is a complete U-turn from its previous position when it was in the opposition, when it claimed that political parties should indeed be subject to RTI.

Apparently, the reasoning behind this decision is that the “smooth internal working” of political parties will suffer as a result of being subject to RTI. This seems a small price to pay for the benefits of increased trust in Indian politics. It also seems that this U-turn in the government’s stance runs counter to its campaign promises of re-introducing probity into public life.

A great deal of time and column inches have been devoted to analysing the relatively lukewarm budget that we have just witnessed. It seems that it might be time to shift the focus from monitoring progress on decision-making efficiency and economic issues towards evaluating progress on promises of restoring trust in political decisions and processes following the debacles of the previous government.

What about the internal functioning of political parties? One of the big unanswered questions in Indian political life is the process determining the selection of candidates. Different parties adopt different approaches, and the selection of candidates by a cabal of senior figures in the party is not uncommon. There is no uniformity of selection process, and often, selection is ad-hoc, resulting in a staggering number of candidates with questionable antecedents.

There does seem to be some progress on this issue, with a few political parties beginning to move in the direction of more democratic, accountable decision-making in candidate selection. Again, opening these processes up to public scrutiny via RTI requests can only catalyze the slow process of change.

One frequently heard defence of a lack of transparency is that the resulting information flow will be difficult to manage, especially in an environment with relatively immature political and public discourse. But who gets to decide what information is classified? And who wields the power when there is no transparency?

It is clear that Indian society is hungry for greater accountability in public life, as seen from the reactions to these recent books. It would make good sense to channel that hunger into a constructive movement for transparency in the places where it is sorely needed.

Tarun Ramadorai is professor of financial economics at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and a member of the Oxford-Man Institute of Quantitative Finance.

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