Monday, February 9, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, February 9, 2009

AFTER over a week of viewing the world from his hospital bed at the AIIMS, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is back home and, thankfully, his physicians say he is recovering fast and will be back in office soon. That’s the good news. The bad news is that that there are lots of familiar problems awaiting him, none of which are of his own making and over which the good doctor may have little control.

Among them this: over half a dozen queries invoking the Right to Information Act, seeking details of the assets of his cabinet colleagues and their relatives are pending before the authorities and it appears overenthusiastic officials in the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat, intent on proving their loyalty to the ruling establishment, are doing everything to ensure that the information does not get into the public domain.

This is both ironical and shameful because if there is one achievement that the UPA government can rightfully claim as its own, it is the RTI. Thanks to the Act, we now know that the prime minister has assets, both moveable and immoveable, worth just under Rs four crores, which include bank deposits, bonds, postal savings, two houses and a 1996 model Maruti car. While the prime minister is supposed to be the first among equals in our parliamentary form of government, with the kind of assets he owns, Manmohan must be bringing up the rear in the Parliamentarian millionaires row. But that’s besides the point.

The question that begs an answer is: why are the UPA leaders so cagey about declaring their own assets as well as those held by their close relatives. All MPs — and that includes ministers — filed declarations about their assets while fighting the last elections for the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha. Has the reluctance to make it public got something to do with the possible accretion in their assets in the nearly five years they have been in office? Manmohan must be torn between his natural instincts which tell him that he must get his ministers to lay everything bare and the pressures of a coalition government set- up. The PMO, which until recently followed procedure and forwarded all information relating to RTI queries, has now backtracked claiming that such information cannot be divulged as it was exempt under the RTI Act provisions.

India Today, where I am editor, had in the past sought and got information, but a few RTI petitions that we filed in recent times have fallen victim to official stonewalling. That Manmohan is a stickler for transparency bears no repetition, but the brazen attempts to derail the RTI leaves us with only one conclusion: that ministers and senior bureaucrats are defying the prime minister’s order.

This when the Government of India conduct rules explicitly state that all ministers and officials file their assets at the end of every financial year, which is then placed in parliament.
The ministers in this government haven’t done it even once.

Though only a miniscule percentage of voters are aware of the RTI and even less ever resort to it, the Act was to feature as one of the main planks in the UPA campaign for the impending elections. But now its biggest achievement threatens to hang around UPA’s neck like a huge political albatross.

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