By Bhanupriya Rao:
A few weeks ago, a handful of citizens, albeit quite accidentally, embarked upon a unique experiment in participatory democracy. Frustrated and enraged by the government’s move to bring in hasty amendments to the powerful Right to Information Act, we began engaging directly with our Members of Parliament. We called our MPs, asked them their stand on bringing political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act, argued and reasoned with those that supported the amendments, hailed those that did not and urged all of them to vote against when it came up for voting in the Lok Sabha. Thus RTI Call-a-Thon was born.
Three weeks later, we called around 350 MPs i.e. 65% of Lok Sabha and painstakingly recorded all their responses, which have been interactively coded on this map. The exercise reaffirmed what we have known all along about intra-party democracy i.e. it does not exist. All the major parties, even as I write, have not discussed this issue within their own parties. Of the 100 BJP MPs we spoke to, 30 of them said they supported the CIC’s order that political parties should be brought within the RTI. However, on the day of voting, they would be bound by the party whip and vote as the party decides. Navjot Singh Sidhu (Amritsar) disguised this party high-handedness as ‘team work in a democracy’, while Vishnu Deo Sai (Raigarh), brimming over with self-pity, called himself a ‘small fish’ who has to listen to their ‘big leaders’. Some like Rajendrasingh Rana and Raghavendra Yedurappa told us that they would rally around a few other BJP MPs and share their concerns with the party leadership. Whether they actually got around to doing this is not something I am placing my bets on.
One had heard of bizarre things flying out of Sharad Yadav’s tongue in the past. But I have reason to believe that he challenges himself to do one better than the last time. When I asked him, if he believed that political parties should come under the RTI Act, he said no. Prodding on, I asked why? Should we not move towards greater transparency? His answer: ‘We are not Europe. We should not be transparent like them. They looted us for centuries’.
When most of them stonewall, a few MPs stand tall
In the middle of this pale and gloom, hope came in the form of Mr. Jay Panda, BJD MP from Orissa, who was the first MP to take an open stand against the amendments. He announced his opposition to the amendments on twitter and made an earnest appeal to his fellow politicians such as Narendra Modi, Shashi Tharoor, Ajay Maken and others to rally support within their own parties.
This announcement not only came as breath of fresh air but presented an exciting opportunity for citizens to work directly with an MP on a major policy issue. We got in touch with the Office of Jay Panda, who are quick at their feet and extremely well-informed; to further explore the possibility of this new model of ‘citizen-MP’ engagement for influencing legislation in the Parliament.
With the government hand-in-glove with the opposition, hell bent on passing the amendments and the Prime Minister expressing his inability to do anything as the Bill was the now the property of the Parliament, it was left to the Speaker of Lok Sabha to send the Bill to a Parliamentary committee for wider deliberation. Mr. Panda wrote a letter to the speaker asking her to send the Bill to a Parliamentary Committee, while as citizens we started an online petition to mobilise public support to amplify his lone voice asking the speaker to act.
In Google hangout with us, Mr Panda explained why he chose to stand against these amendments. ‘The Supreme Court judgement on convicted MPs and the CIC’s order to bring political parties within RTI have come as major disruptions to politics as usual. With the near unanimity around the amendments, someone had to speak up. When I realised no one else did, I thought I should.’
He believes that the CIC order is a major opportunity to bring greater transparency in political financing and upholding probity in public life, one that the political establishment would do well not to pass. His contends that ‘the Election Commission is the appropriate constitutional body which needs greater teeth to enforce mandatory disclosures of party finances with proper auditing and adequate penalties for non-compliance. Until such time as the EC was not strengthened with these powers, RTI should not be amended.’
‘This is a turning point in the history of our democracy and we have a chance to upgrade our politics, to make it transparent or we have a chance to be status-quoits and continue to perpetuate the old system. I do not want to be part of the latter’, he asserted.
Since then, we have worked closely with Mr. Panda’s office by feeding them information on the possible MPs he could speak to and rally around against these amendments. We called another round of MPs, especially the ones that were against these amendments, spoke to them about Mr. Panda’s public stand and his letter to the speaker and urged them to join forces with him in asking the speaker to not put it for vote in a hasty manner. Mr. K.P Dhanapalan (INC), Mr. ShamRao Dhotre (BJP) and Anand Rao Adsul (Shiv Sena) have, since then, expressed willingness to rally around our collective demand. The Trinamool Congress, which had changed its stand since it initially spoke strongly against these amendments, has now decided to vote against these amendments as has the Telugu Desam Party.
Mr. Ajoy Kumar, MP from Jamshedpur also sent a letter to the speaker to reconsider the vote on amendments in a hasty manner. Mr. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the outspoken RJD MP said he would oppose the amendments on the floor of the House even if his own party voted against it. “How can the political parties deny they are public bodies? In my opinion, there is no body more public than political parties. If they are against coming under RTI, clearly they have a lot to hide’, he thundered.
Mr. Dinesh Trivedi, the upright and vocal former Union Minister of Railways and Health, wrote ‘I am speaking on the Bill and I will oppose it tooth and nail’, when I emailed him on his stand. He asked the details of the 2 lakh petitions from citizens against the amendments, which he said he would carry to the central hall of the Parliament. Since then, he has got in touch with Jay Panda, and together they are calling for a division vote to record who voted how as against a voice vote.
As public opinion galvanised against these amendments, the establishment has further closed in. The speaker has since rejected both the original demand as well as the amendments filed by Jay Panda. While The Minister of DoPT Mr. Narayanswamy, initially agreed to ask the speaker to send the Bill to the committee, he has since then retracted and his office flatly denied that it even considered doing so. When I spoke with Mr. Narayanswamy, he agreed to take on board the citizens’ voices to the speaker but as per this report the government is in a tearing hurry to keep the political parties out of RTI. All this, while Mr. Milind Deora, the Union Minister of State for Communications and IT, said last evening that the ‘Government would be sending the wrong optics by amending the RTI Act’.
While the numbers point towards a smooth sail for the Bill in the Lok Sabha, the entire exercise has taught us a few lessons.
The more we ask, the more we get. The more we get, the more we can ask for. This was a novel experiment for us but one we hope to continue in the future and scale up. As one of my co-collaborators said ‘Tell me we can achieve anything without a fight and I will stop’
Our next stop: Rajya Sabha
Join the RTI Call-a-Thon. Find your MPs contact here and engage with them.