Little public outrage as politicians unite against transparency

August 8, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

India’s political parties are united, for a change. It’s not over women’s safety or how many poor people the country has. They have closed ranks against moves to make parties accountable under the Right to Information (RTI) law.

The Cabinet has asked for changes in the RTI Act that, once approved by parliament, would exclude political parties from being covered by it. In other words, the Congress-led government wants to amend the very law that it once championed.

The government also opposes a recent ruling by India’s Supreme Court that bars jailed politicians from contesting elections and disqualifies them if convicted. A senior government minister told reporters on Aug. 1 that leaders of various political parties criticised the court ruling, which is seen as an affront to the supremacy of parliament.

Apart from a few reports in the media, there has been little public outrage over political parties scuttling attempts to bring in more transparency ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections.

“These issues do not directly affect the people, partly because the information does not reach ordinary people,” said Yogendra Yadav, an expert on election results aligned with anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (common man’s party).

“Also, [these] issues may not be directly on top of people’s minds,” Yadav said, adding that inflation and corruption are more typical topics that fire up voters.

Nearly a third of lawmakers in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, are facing criminal charges of one kind or another – ranging from rape to murder.

Anil Bairwal of the Association for Democratic Reforms, an NGO that scrutinized the records of thousands of political candidates for criminal cases, said voters have hardly any options and little incentive to protest.

“We cannot expect the people to just come out on the streets for each thing and everything,” said Bairwal, citing the example of the anti-corruption movement in 2011 that saw thousands protest in the streets demanding the appointment of an ombudsman to check government corruption. The Lokpal bill is yet to be approved by parliament.

In any case, political parties rarely fight elections over such reforms – it’s affordable food and housing that are the usual election planks.

“Neither it is in the minds of the political parties nor political leaders nor in the minds of common voters,” said Sanjay Kumar, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Studies.

Kumar said issues such as RTI would resonate with a small percentage of urban voters. That’s not a lot, considering around 70 percent of India’s population lives in rural areas.

Even if these issues were to play a part in elections, whom should the voter choose? A ruling party that is digging an escape route for politicians by amending the law, or opposition parties that really want the government to do so.


(You can follow Shashank on Twitter @shashankchouhan)

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