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The Election Commission has issued notice to Ashok Chavan for fudging poll expenses and asking him why he should not be disqualified (a pointless question, me thinks - what possible answer could be there?).

"The commission is of the considered view that respondent (Ashok Chavan) cannot validly claim ignorance about the publication of the above-mentioned 25 advertisements in which his name, the name of his constituency and also his photograph prominently appeared."

If you remember, this was the case broken in The Hindu by Sainath and others in 2009 that put "paid news" on our attention maps (leading to further delicious scandals, but little action).

A quick reminder of the creative accounting involved:

 

Ashok Chavan (of Adarsh Scam fame) submitted election expenses to the Eletion Commission of India stated that he spent less than 7 lakh on his total election campaign, inluding Rs. 5,379 on newspaper advertisements (for 6 ads in one minor daily) and Rs.6,000 on cable television ads. Burst out laughing, didja? The Hindu stated that it had collected 47 full page color advertisements in newspapers (including at least one full front page and major dailies ) like Lokmat (which is among the 10 largest newspapers in India and top in Maharashtra -NRS 2006). Essentially, Chavan submitted acounts that would give him a full color page in a newspaper for less than Rs. 200.

It opened a whole new can of worms that culminated in the Supreme Court drawing the line and issuing a deadline in the peak of the Election frenzy.

P. Sainath and others in The Hindu had covered painstakingly over a series of 21 exposes dogging every development in the case and collecting full page after full page of color advertisements in investigations, with this notice to Ashok Chavan.

It is unclear what reply the Election Commission now expects, but no surprises are anticipated and we may finally see a precedent that sets they way for further action in controlling this open secret of media-political corruption.

Absurdly, Ashok Chavan seems to have lost his sanity, as he seems to see himself being found guilty a vindication of the Congress stand - whatever that means, since the Congress had actually tried to disempower the Election Commission to protect him - and failed. For what it is worth, this is what he reportedly said:

"Our stand on the paid news issue has been confirmed by the Election Commission. Even the High court and Supreme court had taken a similar stand when our opponents had filed a petition. The courts had rejected their petition. Now this (EC) order is also very clear. There is no question of paid news,"

Or perhaps he means that he has been found guilty of fudging his bills for paid advertisements and not news. One never knows what fig leaf a politician will grab.

This comes at a particularly sentimental moment, as P. Sainath, the senior journalist who broke the case ends his career at The Hindu with a sense of closure on one of the major long investigations he did there.

Disclosure: I manage P. Sainath's blog with his writing in a technical and administrative capacity.

Dear friends,

 

Ratnakar Gaikwad’s selection as Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) of Maharashtra on 6 June 2012 violates a key principle of Natural Justice, “Nemo iudex in causa sua” i.e. "No man is permitted to be judge in his own cause". The circumstances of the selection point to Ratnakar Gaikwad having been “judge in his own cause” in the matter of his selection. Prima facie, it appears that he exercised his powers during his previous tenure as Chief Secretary (i.e. overall chief of Maharashtra’s administration, including General Administration Department, and reporting directly to Chief Minister who heads the selection committee) to select himself in advance, and to keep the CIC’s seat vacant for 10 months until his own retirement from IAS. He was among the top 2-3 authorities in Govt of Maharashtra responsible for filling the CIC’s post in a timely way. He shirked that responsibility in a way that he gained from it.

 

For its proper functioning, the Information Commission and the State Government should have to be an at-arms-length relationship. Gaiwad’s appointment compromises the at-arms-length relationship and establishes an incestuous relationship over his 5-year term. This is a bond that will be very difficult to break, unless the appointment itself is declared null-and-void ab initio.

 

Given the current bench assignments at Maharashtra State Information Commission, Ratnakar Gaikwad will hear cases relating to Mantralaya and MMRDA – organizations that he headed in the previous few years. As the pendency of RTI appeals ensures a time-lag of 1-3 years, the cases that relate to his tenure will be heard by him personally – once again a violation of the principle, "No man is permitted to be judge in his own cause". The appellants’ right to a fair hearing will be minimized and  their access to information will be severely curtailed. Even if he delegates such hearings to other Information Commissioners under him, he will be in overall control – and this is far from ideal.

 

Thirdly, our objection to Ratnakar Gaikwad’s selection is on the ground that he has played a substantial role in many misdoings, including the now-infamous Adarsh scam. As chief of MMRDA, Gaikwad acted against public interest by issuing occupation certificate to Adarsh building, ignoring objections raised by Western Naval Commanding-in-Chief about national security issues. Read Gaikwad’s correspondence with Western Naval Command: http://tinyurl.com/Adarsh-OC-Ratnakar-Gaikwad-red

 

Whether his role was innocent or mala fide is yet to be settled in court. If he is accused and found guilty, all the orders given by him as Chief Information Commissioner will carry a taint. It will be very difficult for anybody to cite his orders before a public authority or a court of law for years and decades to come.

 

The integrity of the State Information Commission as an institution matters more than the rights and privileges of the person being appointed as its chief. It is an “integrity institution” like the State Vigilance Commission and Comptroller And Auditor General. The selection procedure of this integrity institution should be such that it guarantees impartial and unbiased hearing. Therefore, it is not enough for us to hope that Gaikwad as an individual will be unbiased in future, and will act in good faith. It is the government’s duty to ensure that the person appointed to this office is intrinsically unbiased in all ways. The government has failed in this duty to the common man.

 

ROLE OF THE CHIEF STATE INFORMATION COMMISSIONER

 

Maharashtra Chief Information Commissioner is the head of Maharashtra State Information Commission, which exists to hear second appeals of RTI against the State government. As chief, in his administrative capacity, he oversees the overall health of the Commission through budget and manpower allocations.

 

Also, he has a supervisory and advisory role to push for compliance with RTI’s section 4 (suo-moto disclosures) and proper appointment of public information officers, first appellate authorities etc. by all public authorities of the State government, from village panchayats, municipal wards and state-run organizations like BEST and MMRDA, right up to the top levels of Mantralaya such as Chief Secretary’s office and Chief Minister’s Office (CMO).

 

Last but not least, as Information Commissioner, he hears second appeals arising from RTI applications against MMRDA, Mantralaya, CMO, and passes orders. For example, if an RTI applicant feels that CMO has wrongly denied information, Gaikwad will be the person who decides at the second appeal stage whether or not information should be given, and whether the public information officer – an official of CMO – should be penalized. His previous closeness to the Chief Minister and others will hurt the RTI appellant’s chances of a fair hearing.

 

WHY SOME ACTIVISTS WELCOMED GAIKWAD’S APPOINTMENT

 

Some of our colleagues are relieved that the CIC’s chair has remained vacant for 10 months, a person has at last been appointed as CIC. As they are worried about the rising pendencies, they have chosen to overlook the issues of natural justice and corruption surrounding Gaikwad’s appointment, and they welcomed him. They now fear that our campaigning may delay the much-need appointment of three more Information Commissioners. And so, they are adopting a see-no-evil approach.

 

My earnest plea to all fellow activists is to focus on ensuring that the SIC remains unbiased as an institution. Please remember, biased orders for five years will do permanent damage the common man’s confidence in right to information. Nothing can undo such damage.

 

Warm Regards,

Krishnaraj Rao

9821588114

thebravepedestrian@gmail.com