‘Anonymising Political Donors Is a Blatant Violation of the RTI Law’

Noted freedom activist Anjali Bhardwaj is in the news for accessing crucial information about the interaction over electoral bonds between the Centre and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), which had raised serious concerns about the scheme. An alumnus of University of Oxford and Delhi School of Economics, she is the co-convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), which works towards promoting transparency in governance. In an interview with Open, Bhardwaj says that the current Government lacks the political will to make information more accessible to the citizens of this country. Edited excerpts:

As a social activist, do you feel that getting access to government data and information has become tougher than before?

I don’t want to give a yes/no answer to that question because I have just anecdotal and no research-based evidence on it. So, I will give answer to that question in parts: since the BJP came to power in 2014, not a single information commissioner was appointed to the Central Information Commission (CIC) till people approached the courts. There was a time when there were eight vacancies in the CIC, including that of the chief of the Commission. Even currently, there are four vacancies in the CIC. Yes, the Government’s lack of political will on this front is very clear. Appealing to the CIC is one way to ensure that people can get information even when the Centre denies them the information. It is true that the Centre is not prompt as regards appointing information commissioners that will help the CIC function properly.

Lately, there were efforts to dilute the RTI Act as is evident from the fact that the law was amended in July this year. Basically, such measures result in seriously weakening the law. The independence of the information commission has been hit by saying that the tenure/salaries of the commissioners will be set now by the Government. Earlier, it was set in the law. The rules the ruling party has made are arbitrary. In that sense, the will of the Government to make sure that people have access to federal data is not strong enough. The Government’s attitude towards RTI seems to be problematic.

You have managed to get information on electoral bonds and that has become explosive news now. How do you feel about it as a freedom activist?

This is information that should have been in the public domain in the first place. In this country, we have pre-legislative consultation policy by which they should have at least made it available to political parties although I would say people as a whole should have been made participants in the debate prior to the formulation of this scheme. None of those were done. Section 4 of the RTI law says that information should be provided to citizens before any important policy is drafted.

Much of information, therefore, on electoral bonds should have been part of public knowledge. The papers now available prove that the Government has been working in secrecy. They show that institutions of the repute of the RBI and even the Election Commission felt a great deal of concern and apprehension about the scheme. The Government still went ahead and rode roughshod over all their concerns. It goes to show that the Government was working to some other compulsions. I think that this kind of information being made pubic and reported is very important in a democracy because, as the Supreme Court has stated many times, the right to know flows from the right to freedom and expression.

Only when people have information can they be expected to freely express themselves. Openness in decision-making is very crucial in a country like ours. To that extent, RTI law empowers people to access this kind of information. The fact that it (inside story of electoral bonds) has appeared in public may inspire the Government to take future decisions in a more appropriate manner.

What exactly stirred you to file for information on electoral bonds?

I filed one RTI query in March this year to the Cabinet Secretary. The application was later transferred to two other departments after which I received a reply… The things with electoral bonds are that the whole scheme goes against all benchmarks for transparency. Let’s not forget that all political parties fall under the RTI law. Essentially, the whole demand has been that there should be greater transparency in the functioning of political parties and in political funding.

When the finance ministry first said that they were bringing in electoral bonds to enhance transparency in such funding, we had hoped that the scheme would actually do so. But when the contours of this scheme finally emerged, it was very clear that bonds were meant to anonymise all donors. Which means that anyone could buy electoral bonds and transfer any amount of money to political parties and no citizen would ever know who transferred the money and to which political party. This violates people’s right to information. It is something that we (National Campaign for People’s Right to Information) have been agitating against because the scheme was introduced very surreptitiously. In fact, we had also challenged the Government’s move in the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the matter is still pending with the court.

What are the problems that you find specifically with these electoral bonds?

Anonymising donors was by itself a move completely at variance with the RTI law. It is like saying one thing and doing the opposite. Then look at the way how it was implemented with people being told that there was no way for the Government to find out who were the donors and who they gave money to, while it wasn’t actually so. As we know, donors may feel there would be some repercussions if the ruling party of the day finds out about it.

These bonds are issued by a state-run bank (the State Bank of India). The income-tax department would also have a lot of information. This means the Government would know all about the donors, but not the people. Now, from the information obtained, each electoral bond would have a unique, hidden alphanumeric serial number. Clearly, that bond can be traced. The ruling party has the information and people were actually misled into believing that nobody would have any such data, including the Government. It seems to be an exercise in secrecy and an effort to disallow a level-playing field in politics. For the ruling party, electoral bonds also became a channel for accessing funds without any transparency. From whatever data is available so far on electoral bonds, more than 90 per cent of the money went to the ruling party.

What is the alternative to electoral bonds? How can we ensure greater transparency in political funding?

We are of the firm view that political funding should be totally transparent in a democracy. Because it is known that political parties will eventually work for those who donated them money. There is the whole issue of the quid pro quo. Therefore, it is better to know who funds whom. People have the right to know that because they might not want to vote for a party that accepts funds from certain corporate entities. All voters have the right to know those details. Besides, the RTI law covers political parties. Nobody has the right to anonymise the donor. All such funding should be open to public scrutiny. Of course, nobody wants donors to keep giving money in cash and political parties to keep accepting that money.

But surely the answer to that cannot be that we anonymise political donors. Political parties are now sitting in blatant non-compliance of the CIC’s orders. They need to follow the law. The electoral bonds scheme, as it stands today, should be scrapped. If they want to retain the scheme, then the Government must make public the names of the donors. Voters of this country need to make informed choices. Earlier, sources of donations upward of Rs 20,000 had to be made public and electoral bonds were brought in to keep under the wraps details of all donations made through bonds, however large the amount.

What are the challenges of being a freedom activist?

What has helped us is access to information (RTI law). And we are seeing that it is being systematically curbed. A lot of information is not allowed to come out, including crucial financial data. The challenge ahead is huge.

First published in Open

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