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Using RTI Act to usher in change in Indian politics

Using RTI Act to usher in change in Indian politics
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First Published: Wed, Nov 12 2008. 11 13 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Nov 12 2008. 11 13 PM IST
On one side of the globe, Barack Hussein Obama swept a majority of Americans along with his promise of change. Here, in south Asia, a former Amnesty International “prisoner of conscience” in the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, successfully overthrew a 30-year-old dictatorship. Next month, Bangladesh, which has been under indirect army rule for the past couple of years, has promised its people a free and fair election.
In India, too, the inexorable drumbeat of the assembly elections is gathering pace—with a difference. The Election Commission has actually chided the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief ministerial candidate for New Delhi, Vijay Kumar Malhotra, for violating the model code of conduct by having more than three cars accompany him when he went to file his nomination papers (Malhotra claims he didn’t). Meanwhile, chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah is pondering over appeals under the Right to Information Act that would allow citizens the right to access the sources of funds of anyone seeking “public office” (such as a member of Parliament or a member of the state legislative assembly/council).
If Habibullah is able to swing this (it will mean making income-tax returns subject to right to information laws), Manmohan Singh’s government will go down in history as having breathed real life into all those wonderful privileges that still largely remain on the paper on which the path-breaking Constitution of India was written.
Consider how an avalanche of information could change India: All MPs, under the Election Commission’s code of conduct, must file their income-tax returns that can be accessed under the RTI Act. The Indian Express, in a recent investigation, found that less than 10% of MPs had done so. Those who had included Congress MP from Amethi, Rahul Gandhi. According to his income-tax returns, which The Indian Express sourced, Gandhi had bought two shops in a posh mall in south Delhi, both of which he has since rented out.
If Habibullah is allowed to have his way, common citizens such as you and me will now be able to ask where Rahul Gandhi got the money for this from.
The point here, of course, is that it would be good to make an example of the young MP from Amethi—who, like Obama, is gripped by the idea of a revolution in politics. Maybe Gandhi should make an example of himself, thereby putting the rest of the Congress party to shame.
And why stop at Rahul Gandhi? Imagine being able to demand information about other people in “public office”, whether it is Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh, whose demands for quid pro quos for letting the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance stay in power have repeatedly been front page news, DMK leader and telecom minister A. Raja (in the news for allegedly selling off spectrum at dirt-cheap rates, thereby causing grave losses to the exchequer) or BJP’s chief minister in Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan, accused of corruption by the Opposition.
Habibullah is also pondering another revolutionary step: Can information relating to national security be revealed to the public? The question relates to an appeal, filed under the RTI Act, by eminent journalist Kuldip Nayyar, to release the documents relating to the investigation into the 1962 war between India and China, known as the Henderson-Brooks report.
Of course, the RTI Act clearly states that demands for information cannot compromise national security. Nothing will be allowed to endanger the nation, not even common curiosity. So how did Habibullah even admit a petition like the one Nayyar has filed?
It is believed Habibullah has already asked the army to reply to Nayyar’s question, as to why the Henderson-Brooks report cannot be made public. The army even sent back a message that simply said no. Habibullah has since politely retorted that a better case needs to be made. And that’s where the matter rests, for the time being.
To be sure, truly sensitive parts of the Henderson-Brooks report can be kept secret, as is done in the US. But if the Indian people are finally told about the inside stories that went into the totally disastrous preparation for the war, both in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, perhaps New Delhi and Beijing would be able to better resolve their acrimonious border dispute.
As Obama and Nasheed clearly saw, change is not a happy tea party. Both knew that revolutions don’t happen on their own, and that it is imperative to bring together people who disagree to find a compromise. Most importantly, it is imperative to keep reaching out across the aisle, so that change is not only constant, but also consistent.
India’s politicians—and those in Bangladesh—have these examples before them as they go to the polls over the next few weeks and months. With a little help from people such as Wajahat Habibullah, they could easily make a difference.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes every week on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics.
Comments are welcome at betweenthelines@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Nov 12 2008. 11 13 PM IST