Political Parties and RTI Act

Addressing a press conference in New Delhi last year, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir said that political parties should be brought under the ambit of the RTI Act. The statement was welcomed, but at the same time knowledgeable quarters accused him of duplicity. According to them, the Chief Minister had amended RTI rules in his own state and turned the State Information Commission (SIC) into a lame duck. The changes also attracted severe criticism, not only from the RTI activists but also from the civil society and political parties. The former Chief Information Commissioner of the Central Information Commission, Wajahat Habibullah, and the incumbent state CIC, G R Sufi, also criticized the move. Civil society urged Omar Abdullah to prove his sincerity by taking tangible measures like declaring his National Conference a public authority. This, they said, should be followed by furnishing information to applicants who have approached him under the RTI Act for information about the NC and its leadership.

The JK RTI Rules 2010 conferred vast powers on the State Information Commission, like issuing warrants and summons against the Chief Secretary of the state. But the situation changed after the amendments. Now the SIC is a toothless tiger like the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC). Some of the powers under Section 44 of the Act that were withdrawn included making an annual roster for appearance of public authorities before the Commission. It also empowered the SIC to decide who could represent the public authority before the Commission. The rules had made it obligatory for various departments and organizations to include the Commission’s recommendations in their annual report.

The provisions could have gone a long way in ensuring transparency and fairness. Bringing political parties under the ambit of the Act becomes all the more necessary when people have started expressing concern over dynastic rule, undemocratic practices and corruption within political organisations. If people repose trust in political parties and cast votes in their favour, they have a right to know what is happening inside their `kitchen cabinets,’ how funds are raised and utilized and how the system (within the organizations) works. Politicians may not like it, but why should people trust leaders who conceal material facts about themselves and their respective political parties. People must know why a particular person or a particular family should be at the helm of affairs in an organization. Let Omar Abdullah start the process. Others will be forced to follow suit.