Source: 
The Economic Times
http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-06-13/news/39952409_1_political-parties-central-information-commission-political-reform
Date: 
13.06.2013
City: 
New Delhi
Six Political Parties vs Six Citizens 

If India is now debating opening the books and operations of political parties to the public,its because of these six people who pulled strategic levers and applied relentless pressure.Soma Banerjee traces a four-year effort that converted intent to action 

Balwant Singh Khera,a politician from Hoshiarpur in Punjab,is not a name that will strike a chord in mainstream politics or social discourse today.It might in the years to come,as the inadvertent fount of a significant piece of political reform.Back in July 2009,the Central Information Commission (CIC),which deals with matters related to information sharing by the government,rejected Kheras plea to make political parties open their finances and operations to the public at large.That rejection found acceptance,in another form,in another place.Reading the order from his perch in New Delhi,Anil Bairwal,whose organisation had been pressing its own levers to make political parties more transparent and accountable,understood this was one reform that would have to be argued differently.Kheras defeat was a lesson for us, says Bairwal.We were up against a mighty force.It became evident that we could take up the case only when armed with sound facts and documentary evidence. The organisation he headed,the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR),had built substantial reserves of facts and figures on political parties during its work in these spaces in the last 14 years.But even that wasnt enough to build an overwhelming case to bring political parties under the Right to Information (RTI) Act,the relatively new weapon to source information on matters related,directly and indirectly,to the government.So,Bairwal and his team put in place a plan to collect more information,using the RTI itself.But it wouldnt be just any information.It would be strategic and scientific in nature,building and fortifying four pillars of information they would rest their case on.Bairwal leaned on young lieutenants.In the latter part of the fight,there were two in particular: Manoj Kumar,32,an IIT graduate who turned his back to the high world of finance,and Shivani Kapoor,24,a post-graduate in law and in her first job.They were young,yet mature.They were idealistic in their beliefs,yet realistic in their approach.Along the way,they found or drafted new allies.One was Subhash Agrawal,who claims to have filed the maximum number of RTIs in India and who,on a parallel track,had petitioned the CIC to bring the Congress and the BJP under the RTI.Another was Ashok Aneja,an ex-commissioner of income tax who crafted tax foregone into one of the four pillars of information.Each brought in something that made the whole bigger than the sum of its parts.So big,so convincing that it has set the ball rolling on a significant piece of politicalfunding reform and created a unique situation where the six political parties are,for once,on the same side.But also in a corner.They (ADR) have used the RTI very effectively, says Nikhil Dey,member,National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information (NCPRI).The RTI way is not easy,it takes time.But if there is a record,the experience is you will get it. On June 3,the CIC passed an order bringing six national political partiesCongress,BJP,BSP,NCP,CPI (M) and CPIunder the RTI.This means any citizen can ask,say,the Congress for a list of the top 100 donors or the BJP about the minutes of the meeting that decided Narendra Modis appointment as the head of the partys election campaign committee.Basically,any activity of these parties that is recorded.The political parties,all of whom have opposed the order and may even go to court over it,have been given six weeks to appoint an information officer.Its an opening into the black box, feels Bairwal,national coordinator of ADR and the principal petitioner in the case,on the judgment.Its some sort of arrival of a four-year journey of strategic choices and unrelenting pressure,of a team of six ordinary citizens who worked indefatigably to change a system by working within its construct.But,even before they started,they waited.

PARTY DOUBLESPEAK 

In late-2009,a few months after the CIC had dismissed Kheras plea,Bairwal began thinking of picking up where Khera left off.The logic was clear in my mind, he says.Political parties form governments that make policies.How can political parties who field lawmakers be excluded if the RTI empowers citizens to know about the government But an information officer told Bairwal to wait for the RTI movement to gather steam before seeking information from political parties.He waited.In October 2010,about a year later,Bairwal asked two questions to six parties.One,which donors made the biggest funding contributions to the party for the 2004 general elections Two,which donors made a single contribution of Rs 1 lakh or more between 2004-05 to 2009-10 He got nothing.The BSP and the BJP did not reply.The CPI,CPI(M) and NCP refused,saying they were not a public authority.The Congress,under whose reign the RTI was enacted in 2005,said they had no manpower to furnish those details.In March 2011,Bairwal moved the CIC.He built his case,in consultation with Jagdeep S Chhokar,one of the ADR founders who also argued the case with the CIC.They listed four counts on which political parties were drawing benefits from the state: 
occupying subsidised land 
and property availing free advertising time on state radio and television;securing electoral rolls for free and exemption from income tax.Even as Bairwal and his team started gathering information,largely through RTIs,they began meeting political leaders,only to encounter varying degrees of doublespeak.Rahul Gandhi (Congress),Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj (BJP) welcomed our initiative,but the replies from their parties toed a different line, says Bairwal.The CPI,he adds,did a U-turn : its leader AB Bardhan told them that parties were public entities and were accountable,but the partys reply on the RTI argued against it.

200 RTIS 

With trenchant opposition from political parties,ADR needed strong data to make a forceful case.The money involved in housing offices of political parties in Lutyens Delhi is mind-boggling, says Manoj Kumar,who worked extensively on securing and mining the land data.This was no easy job.While one could locate offices of political parties,the challenge was to obtain supporting documents and records.They got a break in the form of a brief note that ADR stumbled upon.This note,prepared by the department of estate under the ministry of urban development,listed offices,schools and hospitals that had been given land on concessional rent from 1920 onwards.Getting the list was round one, says Kumar.Round two was imputing market values to those land holdings,objectively.ADR used data from reputed real estate consultantsCushman & Wakefield,Jones Lang LaSalle and Citigroupto arrive at these valuations.Kumar says ADRs calculation of about Rs 2,700 crore as the value of benefits derived by political parties from land and property,in fact,erred on the side of conservatism.For example,he adds,they used the official circle rates,which valued Central Delhi land at Rs 1.6 lakh per sq ft,whereas transactions happen in the range of Rs 12-15 lakh per sq ft.Their task got tougher as they moved to state capitals.Karnataka maintained that political parties were never allotted any land or office space,while Maharashtra said all records were burnt in the fire in the state secretariat last year.Where they did get a reply,they still had to make sense of it and piece it into the puzzle.For every land RTI,we received a reply this thick, says Bairwal,holding his hands a feet apart.Piles of paper occupy every nook and cranny of ADRs office in New Delhi,on the fourth-floor of what looks like the most dilapidated building in the pretty Qutab Institutional Area.It has about 25 employees,mostly youngsters in their 20s and 30s,and a platoon of volunteers and interns.Formed in 1999 by a group of 11 professors,with the core from IIM Ahmedabad,ADR conducts multiple projects aimed at increasing transparency and accountability in the political and electoral system.

LEVERS OF INFLUENCE 

According to Bairwal,who joined ADR in 2008,it must have filed about 200 RTIs in two years.It also drew from a similar number filed by NGOsADR has tied up for information with about 600 of themas well as by Subhash Agrawal,who had separately approached the CIC in 2011 after both the Congress and the BJP denied him information.I had got land records of all the office space occupied by the two national parties,which was the basis of declaring them as a public authority, says Agrawal,who fielded activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan to argue his case.The CIC,in 2012,clubbed the ADR and Aggarwal petitions,and they started collaborating more.Certain information,like obtaining airtime charges from Prasar Bharati,was relatively easily procured.For others,they had to push the right buttons,especially with the information officers.It could be a small thing of where and how to file a particular RTI to obtain the information,and this needed me to build a rapport with them, says Kapoor.All along,they had to think ahead and be prepared for rejection.A dive into income-tax filings of political parties strengthened their case.While parties are exempt from paying taxes,they have to file returns based on their declared incomes.ADR decided to extrapolate from the exemptions the revenue foregone by the state and brought in Ashok Aneja,a retired chief commissioner of the income tax department.The tax exemptions worked out to about Rs 1,000 crore annually,says Aneja,but there was more to this.For instance,there is a tax forgone even at the contributors level. Aneja argues that,unlike NGOs,which enjoy tax exemptions with conditions,political parties have a blanket exemption.They presented all this during the CICI hearings.While most parties opted to attend at least one of the (two) hearings,the Congress stayed away, says Kapoor.After the judgment,though,parties have been vocal about their opposition.This decision has expanded the scope of the RTI, says Dey of NCPRI,adding that,when they were drafting the RTI Act,they had sought including political parties,trade unions,cooperatives,religious trusts and NGOs.Dey feels political parties will go to court,something that even Bairwal and team expect.They have already filed a caveat in the Delhi High Court,which means that if any political party goes to court over the CIC order,the court cannot stay the matter without hearing ADR.On another track,ADR has prepared a draft bill on political funding,which is presently being circulated for views.This is only the beginning of a long journey, says [email protected]

 
The Political Reformer 
Anil Bairwal,42 National Coordinator,ADR 

AFTER 10 years of writing code for Oracle in California,heading the Indian operations of another software MNC and setting up his own software business in the country,Anil Bairwal was looking for more exciting avenues to work in.The year was 2007,the RTI Act was evolving into a force,and citizen groups were busy understanding its potential.One such group was led by Bairwals former professor at IIM Ahmedabad,Trilochan Sastry.Bairwal was keen to work on social causes and Sastry prodded him to join ADR,but Bairwal was unsure.He agreed to join for six months.Its been five years.This computer engineer and alumnus of IIM,Ahmedabad,has been the national coordinator for ADR since 2008.In the last five years,Bairwal has engaged with hardy political leaders,bureaucrats and activists,while leading a young team into new realms of data gathering,processing and presentation on political parties and politicians.It is a longterm,low-intensity war we have been waging to keep the discourse alive for three years, he says.This (the RTI order) is not a one-shot game for ADR, adds Nikhil Dey of NCPRI.They have been at issues of political funding and internal democracy in political parties for a long time. Scientific in approach and optimistic by nature,Bairwal has instilled a professional culture in ADR,where processes are set,job profiles are defined and technology is used heavily.This ensures continuity even if people leave and there is a system of accountability and transparency in place, he says. 
 
The Land Compiler 
Manoj Kumar,32 Research Fellow,ADR 

IN 2004,Manoj Kumar was writing algorithms for a financial company.Today,he spearheads a key front in what is shaping into a long -- and arduous -- fight to clean up political funding,while earning a fraction of what he did in his corporate job.Do you want to be a part of the wheel asks the 32-year-old textile engineer from IIT,Delhi.Or,do you want to step back to see the larger picture and create a new wheel I may have earned Rs 25 lakh with my degree,but what is its worth if it leaves me dissatisfied That pursuit of satisfaction brought Kumar to ADR.What struck me about ADR was that they were not about one report,but about systemic change.They were using innovative ways to make their case, he says.For the last nine months ago,Kumar has been doggedly compiling and analysing details of land and property occupied by political parties.Kumar,at long last,was in the socio-political conversation he always wanted to be a part of.As a student,he engaged in discussions on social and political issues.Keen to play a more active role,he took his first participative step by attending the Anna Hazare sit-ins for the Lokpal Bill in 2011.He still draws from principles from the world of finance.In the derivatives market,there is the principle of one pricing and one takes note of the arbitrage market, he starts.Similarly,I look at earlier or equivalent judgements on similar topics and use that information to build my defence in a fresh case. 
 
The RTI Tracker 
Shivani Kapoor,24 Program Associate (RTI disclosures and PILs),ADR 

IN the pursuit of this political reform,ADR filed about 200 RTI applications.The responsibility of coordinating these RTI applications,and dealing with the CIC and parties,was assigned to Shivani Kapoor: 24 years,lawyer,in her first job.Kapoor had sought such responsibility for as long as she knew.The cause,she says,was her calling.In 2011,after completing her post-graduation in human rights,constitution and international law from Amity University in Noida,she joined ADR.I was lucky as I hit the road running, she says.On day one,I was given a bunch of letters from parties who said the RTI does not cover them. In the last 18 months,Kapoor has handled many more such letters with persistence,maturity and understanding.Some of those qualities were shaped when,as a law student,she interned with the ministry of women and child welfare,and saw the grind of policymaking.It made her think about working in this space.Engaging with stakeholders,be it information officers or parties,taught her new lessons.You have to win them over to get the best out of the system, she says.However,she is less forgiving of politicians.They run governments and make laws,but consider themselves beyond law,almost like superior untouchables, she says.Kapoor feels a sense of accomplishment,more so when she considers the alternative of being a corporate lawyer that most of her batchmates chose.I have had a role in reshaping our democracy,and this is only my first job, she says. 


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