India’s parties resist new transparency efforts

August 13, 2013

Indian lawmakers arrive at Parliament House in New Delhi. (Prakash Singh/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

NEW DELHI – When it comes to transparency laws, there's little sunshine these days for Indian politicians.

For almost a decade, the two main political parties in India have tried to outdo each other in claiming credit for a landmark law that granted citizens the right to demand information and lift the veil of secrecy from official documents.

Since 2005, the sunshine law has become a powerful tool allowing citizens' groups, environmentalists and journalists to expose corruption and cronyism across India.

But now, India's politicians are scrambling to do whatever they can to keep their activities private, with the government introducing a bill in Parliament on Monday that would exempt political parties from the law. The legislation was proposed in response to a ruling by the country's Central Information Commission that the law applies not just to bureaucrats but to the six major political parties -- because they are “public authorities.”

Politicians say that opening up their private files to public scrutiny will expose their parties’ internal strategies. Last week, Law Minister Kapil Sibal said that political parties are not “public authorities” but rather voluntary associations.

Rights advocates were not impressed. At a protest in New Delhi last week, Anjali Bharadwaj, a member of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information, said that “the parties are becoming the judge, court and petitioner in their own case.”

In 2008, an advocacy group, the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), acquired copies of parties' tax returns using the information law. They found that the parties had accounted for only 20 per cent of their total income.

The sources of the other 80 percent “remain shrouded in mystery,” wrote Jagdeep Chhokar, a founding member of ADR.

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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Max Fisher | August 13, 2013