Jagdeep S Chhokar
New Delhi

Last week Times Now held what it called 'The National Debate on Legislature vs Judiciary'. The participants were the former Chief Justice of India Justice RM Lodha and the former Law Minister and the current Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and prominent lawyers Soli Sorabjee and Rajeev Dhavan. Arnab Goswami anchored the debate. A short excerpt from the transcript of debate, almost at the end, is given below.

Arun Jaitley (AJ): "Justice Lodha, if you were the Chief Justice today would you agree and appreciate if the recommendations made and the proceedings were all subject to the RTI?"

RM Lodha (RML): "RTI or no but surely, there should not be...there are two options open, either to make it public before the appointments are made or after the appointments are made. The better option is, having regard to the Indian psyche, that once the appointments are made, the entire record is brought in public domain. Now whether through RTI or any other means is anybody's choice."

Arnab Goswami (AG): "But Mr Jaitley, equally, would you bring the political parties under the RTI?"

AJ (laughing): "Are you trying to work out a deal?"

AG (laughing): “One thing I have not been good at is trying to work out a compromise.”

Rajeev Dhavan (RD): "Arnab, the question is before the Supreme Court."

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. YouTube screengrab

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. YouTube screengrab

Jaitley obviously did not give a clear response to Arnab Goswami’s question about political parties coming in the ambit of the Right to Information Act (RTI Act). It is clear from the comment and facial expression of Arun Jaitley that he was trying to evade the question. It is this evasion of the question that amounts to ‘economising on truth’. Let us see why.

A full bench of the Central Information Commission (CIC) ruled on 3 June 2013, that six national political parties, including BJP, were public authorities under the RTI Act as they fulfilled the conditions mentioned in Section 2(h) of the RTI Act which defines a public authority, and directed “the Presidents, General/Secretaries of these Political Parties… to designate CPIOs and the Appellate Authorities at their headquarters in 6 weeks' time. The CPIOs so appointed will respond to the RTI applications extracted in this order in 04 weeks time.”

None of the six political parties complied with the decision of the CIC. A complaint for non-compliance was filed with the CIC. CIC issued repeated notices to all the six parties, which again included BJP, but none of the parties responded to these notices. There was also no response to ‘showcause’ notices.

Finally, on 16 March 2015, the CIC expressed its inability and helplessness in getting its own order complied with, saying “the Commission is bereft of the tools to get its orders complied with.” It also said the following:

“We have arrived at the conclusions above taking into account that the Commission’s order of 03.06.2013 was not challenged in any court. As per the Commission’s order, which is final and binding, the respondent national political parties are public authorities under the RTI Act.”

“The respondents, as public authorities, have not implemented the directions contained in the Commission’s order and there is no evidence of any intention to do so;”

“(T)he complainants are at liberty, in view of the facts and circumstances of this case, to approach the higher courts for appropriate relief and redressal.”

It was following the last observation of the CIC that a petition was filed in the Supreme Court for declaration of the six national political parties, including Arun Jaitley’s party, as public authorities under the RTI Act. The Union of India was one of the parties to the petition.

Here comes the ‘economising on truth’ by Jaitley. On 28 August 2015, the Union of India of which Arun Jaitley is the Finance Minister, and a recognised legal expert, filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying interalia the following:

“If the political parties are held to be public authorities under the RTI Act, it would hamper their smooth internal working. Further, it is apprehended that political rivals might file RTI application with malicious intentions to the CPIOs of the political parties, thereby adversely affecting their political functioning.”

It is extremely difficult to believe that Arun Jaitley was, or is, not aware of the above developments, and the stands taken by his party and the government of the day.

It is of course true that Jaitley had not taken an oath to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” before participating in what he referred as an “academic” debate but why should he deliberately hide the truth is another matter altogether.

This subterfuge from one of the leading ministers in the cabinet of a Prime Minister who just about ten days ago described the RTI as a “tool through which the common man has got not just the right to know, but also the right to question those in power” is surprising to say the least. The Prime Minister also said that more openness in governance will help citizens as there is no need for secrecy in this day and age. He went on to say that the right to information is not only about the right to know but also the right to question as this will increase faith in democracy. “People should have a right to question the government. This is the foundation of democracy, this will increase faith in democracy. When matters go online, transparency increases automatically. Trust also increases,” he said.

This substantial difference in what the Prime Minister says, what his Finance Minister does, and what the government does does not seem to be a step towards increasing trust.

Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a former Professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad. He is also
a Founder-Member of Association for Democratic Reforms, one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court.

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