In a country notorious for its secrecy on all matters official, the Central Information Commission’s (CIC) directive to the Cabinet Secretariat asking for all documents relating to Shiv Shankar Menon’s appointment as Foreign Secretary is significant. Indeed, it is a milestone in India’s difficult road to transparency. Responding to an application filed by senior diplomat Veena Sikri on the procedure that led to Mr Menon’s appointment, the CIC had earlier issued notices to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of External Affairs, the Department of Personnel & Training and the Cabinet Secretariat. The PMO had refused access to the file and the all-important ‘notings’ on the grounds that this would amount to invasion of privacy of the IFS officers who had been screened for the post. The Cabinet Secretariat had taken the position that their files did not fall under the purview of the Right to Information Commission. In this context, the CIC’s directive is welcome.
After its perusal, the CIC will return the files “in a sealed envelope to the same officer” once it decides whether or not the contents can be made public. So, even if Ms Sikri is unlikely to have a dekko at what made the Cabinet Appointments Committee ignore 16 senior officers while appointing Mr Menon as foreign secretary, the commission will have a better idea of the road ahead. What Ms Sikri will have immediate access to is the Ministry of External Affairs’ file of the Annual Confidential Reports, sent to the Cabinet Secretariat. This may be only a partial victory, but it is victory nonetheless. Such a move would have been unthinkable before the RTI Act. This case is a landmark. For one, it was the slothful bureaucracy that was most reluctant to push through the RTI Act. It is in the bureaucracy that transparency is most needed. So it is another step in pushing the system towards reform. Second, the matter will serve as a test case for the robustness of the RTI Act.
How the case unfolds is being keenly watched. Democracy will be strengthened as India empowers itself and more and more people use the RTI Act. The efficacy of the procedure by which the foreign secretary is selected is only part of the issue here. The greater victory lies in the fact that a powerful signal has gone out that nothing and no one is above public scrutiny.