"Frivolous and vexatious” — these were the words that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used while addressing this year’s edition of the annual Right To Information (RTI) convention. His choice of words raises several disturbing questions. The PM conveniently ignored the fact that there is no legal definition of what constitutes “frivolous and vexatious” and there is unlikely to be one in the future. Will one person’s understanding of “frivolous” be the same as that of another? If someone were to file an RTI application that could expose corruption by officials, won’t they find the application “vexatious” and be justified in rejecting it? Worse, with applications being rejected by the government’s army of bureaucrats, the Central and State Information Commissions (currently reduced to a retirement home for bureaucrats) would be so burdened, that applicants would have to wait for years to resolve their appeals. In short, the RTI Act would be like the proverbial dead duck in the water.
Perhaps, the PM should have thought of these issues before lending his might to what was, till then, a frivolous demand from the bureaucracy. And yet, on a day that is meant to celebrate transparency as a fundamental right, the PM chose to find a panacea to weaken an embattled law.
But it would be wrong to see the PM’s speech in isolation. Just two days before he addressed the Information Commissioners from across the country at the annual convention, the PM addressed the Central Bureau of Investigation’s officers from across the country. While making all the right noises, the PM slipped in a spirited defence for the “honest public servant” whose morale had to be kept intact. The “mindless atmosphere of negativity and pessimism” only “damage(s) our nation’s image”, he said. Perhaps the PM had section 6 (a) of the Delhi Police Special Establishment (DPSE) Act in mind when he reiterated his sentiments on morale, negativity and a nation’s image. This section 6 mandates that any bureaucrat of the rank of Joint Secretary or above can be investigated only after sanction has been granted by the government. In the absence of a sanction, the CBI can’t even investigate the officer, let alone prosecute them.
Viewed in isolation, the stance adopted by the PM might seem different. But most people forget that the PM is personally responsible for both – the implementation of the RTI Act and the CBI. Both of them are administered by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, which is administered directly by the PM with a minister of state to assist him.
As the PM, not only has Manmohan Singh made it difficult for the CBI to investigate cases of high corruption, he has also taken it out of the ambit of the RTI Act last year. So far, his government has not been able to explain why an anti-corruption agency like the CBI needs to be out of the reach of the RTI Act. This is even more intriguing when Section 8 (1)(h) of the act specifically mandates that information related to any case currently under investigation cannot be shared with the public.
By taking the CBI out of any scope for transparency, Manmohan Singh has done irreparable harm to the cause of a strong and accountable anti-corruption mechanism. Add to this his comments on “frivolous and vexatious” RTI applications, and we see a pattern that is dangerous. He also wants Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP) to be out of the RTI Act and is concerned about privacy, despite it giving adequate protection from disclosure to “third party information.” What the PM doesn’t realise is that a nation’s image is hurt only when citizens don’t have a means to make their elected governments accountable. When these governments fail to be transparent, they lead to a “mindless atmosphere of negativity.”
In such a situation, phenomena like the India Against Corruption (IAC) and its founder Arvind Kejriwal begin to take root. Kejriwal, a past activist who played a key role as part of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) has turned politician to change the game as we know it. The Congress-led UPA government is suspicious of him and treats him as the enemy. His former colleagues in the NCPRI — the “civil society” brigade of Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and others, working with the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council — have condemned Kejriwal’s guerrilla tactics. The BJP-led NDA coalition, that forms the principal opposition in the quagmire of India’s electoral politics, also views Kejriwal with great suspicion, waiting for him to strike at them as well. But all of them proved to be toothless when the government quietly took the CBI out of the ambit of the RTI Act and tried to subvert every institution, including the CAG, the Public Accounts Committee, the Joint Parliamentary Committee and Parliament itself.
In such a situation, with tools like the RTI Act and an independent CBI being rendered ineffective, what is the “Mango Man” (or aam aadmi) to do when faced with corruption and crony capitalism in these cynical times?
Saikat Datta is DNA’s bureau chief in New Delhi