Committee of the political parties responsible for drafting election manifesto
Even as the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice is discussing the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013, introduced by the Central Government to keep political parties out of its ambit, I explored the tendency of political parties based in Delhi to give access to information on the telephone. A colleague of mine wanted to know the details of the manifesto drafting committees set up by the major political parties, to send them submissions on issues that we are currently working on. Given below is a record of my experience of contacting (or not being able to contact) party offices using the telephone numbers given (or not given) on their websites. I was looking for names of members of the committees responsible for drafting election manifestoes for the Delhi Assembly elections as well as the general elections to be held in 2014. I focused on the national parties, one regional party and the ‘newest political party on the block’.
Indian National Congress:
I dialled the telephone numbers of the party headquarters given on INC’s website (www.aicc.org.in) at forenoon today. Despite several attempts to speak to someone, nobody picked up the call. Then I phoned up the office of their Vice President. A lady picked up the phone and gave me the email address of Mr. Rahul Gandhi which is also displayed on the INC website (email@example.com). She was unable to tell me who was on the manifesto drafting committee. Then I called up the office of the Permanent Secretary who was not available on the phone. One of his colleagues directed me to the Joint Office Superintendent of the INC. When I called him up asking for the names of the members of the manifesto committee, he requested me to call back after 10-15 minutes so that he could find out about this from his colleagues. Later when I called back he told me that we could send our submissions to either Mr. Motilal Vohra (Treasurer) or Mr. Janardhan Dwivedi (General Secretary) of the INC by post. When I asked for their email addresses he said emails are not checked regularly, so it would be safer to send the submissions by post to their offices at the addresses mentioned on the website. However nobody I spoke with in the party could actually tell me who was on their manifesto committee for the upcoming Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.
Bharatiya Janata Party:
BJP is perhaps the best prepared to handle people’s submissions to their manifesto drafting exercise. They have a dedicated website (www.bjpelectionmanifesto.com) where submissions may be posted by anybody online. The names and email addresses of the prominent members of the drafting committee are also available online. However the telephone conversation with the party office was equally interesting. Someone did pick up the telephone mentioned on the main BJP website. I introduced myself and explained the purpose of my call. That official first wanted to know my background including the sources of funding that my organisation gets. I told him all that information was available on our website. He promised to call back within a short while after finding out who was responsible in the party for drafting the election manifesto. Later he did call back and inform me of the website described above. All in all, this experience told me that political parties would like to know the reasons why someone calls them up asking for information before furnishing it themselves. When they start dealing with information requests under the RTI Act, they will have a tough time because they will not be able to ask so many questions while giving answers.
Nationalist Congress Party:
Strangely, despite going over the NCP’s website (www.ncp.org.in) several times I could not find a contact number for their party office in Delhi or in Maharashtra. However a facility has been created for people to upload their bio data and seek membership of the party online. The website also has information about how to cast one’s vote if one does not have the electoral photo identity card. Unfortunately, it does not say “how to contact the party office”. So I failed to find out whom to contact for sending submissions for consideration for inclusion in the party’s manifesto.
Communist Party of India:
The party official promptly picked up the phone when I called up but was a bit surprised that I was asking for the names of manifesto committee members. When I explained to him why I needed the information, he suggested that I write to the General Secretary of the Party at the email address that is given on the website (www.communistparty.in). I could not find the names of the manifesto committee members here either. But I was told that the General Secretary would look through any submission that we may send.
Communist Party of India (Marxist):
The party official promptly picked up the phone on the very first call and informed me to send our submission to the General Secretary of the Party at the postal address or the email address mentioned on their website (www.cpim.org). Again I failed to find out the names of manifesto committee members.
Bahujan Samaj Party:
The BSP’s website (www.bspindia.org) is somewhat like that of the NCP’s except for the difference in the photographs of the prominent leaders and the eulogy composed in their honour. The BSP website even gives a bit of history of the dalit/bahujan movement in India which is very educative. However I could not locate a telephone number anywhere on the website to call their party office. The “contact us” button opens up a page allowing readers to key in their comments and submit them online to the party. I will use this facility to find out about the manifesto committee of this party. However not advertising their telephone numbers is a rather strange phenomenon.
The SP’s office also picked up the phone on the first call. I was told to send our submissions to Ms. Usha Yadav who is the President of the Pradesh Committee for Delhi by post or email. Both addresses are mentioned on the website (www.samajwadiparty.in) . However I could not find out who were on the manifesto committee of this party either.
Aam Aadmi Party:
AAP is perhaps the only party amongst those I called up which advertises a mobile phone number for contact instead of a landline number on its website (www.aamaadmiparty.org). However, if you call on it you will get to speak to an answering machine first instead of a party official. When I finally managed to speak to a party official he was kind enough to offer two email addresses (firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com) one of which the head of the party apparently checks himself (I had this on my email database since the olden days when I knew Arvind as a pioneering RTI activist). I was told that I could send our submissions to the party or its head directly. Still no details of who is on the manifesto committee of AAP.
All in all, I realise, getting simple information like who are the members of the manifesto committees in these political parties is as difficult as getting information from public authorities under the RTI Act even though many of these websites are connected to the social media platforms like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. BJP is the only exception which has gone public with its manifesto drafting exercise and so early on. This just shows how difficult it is to get information from organised bureaucracies where the elite make all decisions and information is disclosed only on a need to know basis to others. Even if we in civil society win the battle to keep political parties under the RTI Act, changing their mindset of keeping things under wraps will be difficult. At least many other government departments and public authorities have disclosed information about their committees under Section 4(1)(b) Every public authority shall publish within one hundred and twenty days from the enactment of this Act,- (i) the particulars of its organisation, functions and duties; (ii) the powers and duties of its officers and employees; (iii) the procedure followed in the decision making process, including channels of supervision and accountability; (iv) the norms set by it for the discharge of its functions; (v) the rules, regulations, instructions, manuals and records, held by it or under its control or used by its employees for discharging its functions; (vi) a statement of the categories of documents that are held by it or under its control; (vii) the particulars of any arrangement that exists for consultation with, or representation by, the members of the public in relation to the formulation of its policy or implementation thereof; (viii) a statement of the boards, councils, committees and other bodies consisting of two or more persons constituted as its part or for the purpose of its advice, and as to whether meetings of those boards, councils, committees and other bodies are open to the public, or the minutes of such meetings are accessible for public; (ix) a directory of its officers and employees; (x) the monthly remuneration received by each of its officers and employees, including the system of compensation as provided in its regulations; (xi) the budget allocated to each of its agency, indicating the particulars of all plans, proposed expenditures and reports on disbursements made; (xii) the manner of execution of subsidy programmes, including the amounts allocated and the details of beneficiaries of such programmes; (xiii) particulars of recipients of concessions, permits or authorisations granted by it; (xiv) details in respect of the information, available to or held by it, reduced in an electronic form; (xv) the particulars of facilities available to citizens for obtaining information, including the working hours of a library or reading room, if maintained for public use; (xvi) the names, designations and other particulars of the Public Information Officers; (xvii) such other information as may be prescribed and thereafter update these publications every year; of the RTI Act, wherever they exist. We have a long way to go before transparency becomes the accepted norm in the public sphere.