The Indian media has been agog with the prime minister’s maiden visit to Israel. Among other things, the media has reported in detail about the gifts presented by Narendra Modi to his Israeli counterpart. In the past, multiple applications under Right to Information (RTI) have been filed with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) seeking information about the nature and value of gifts presented by the prime minister to foreign dignitaries.
The MEA, for some strange reason, has been refusing to disclose such information citing an exemption clause in the RTI act.
What Are the Rules Governing Gifts Presented to Foreign Dignitaries?
The foreign recipients of gifts are divided into five categories as per the response to an RTI application by the MEA. The following people could be the recipients of gifts.
- During Outgoing Visits: During the outgoing visits of the president, vice-president & the prime minister of India, gifts are generally presented to Head of State, Head of Government, their spouses, High local dignitaries, Governors/chief ministers etc.
- Incoming VVIP Visits: Gifts are presented by the Indian host to the VVIP, his/her spouse and the accompanying cabinet minister.
- Other Incoming Visits: Gifts are presented only to the leader of the visiting delegation.
- Outgoing Official Visits: During the outgoing official visits of the minister of external affairs, gifts are presented to the counterpart in the host country etc.
- Outgoing Visits of Officials: During outgoing visits of the officials of the level of secretary, gifts are presented to his/her counterpart.
Broadly speaking, the five categories of recipients of gifts are Head of State, Minister, Secretary, Official & Pool level. There are monetary ceilings for the purchase of gift items for each category and these ceilings are approved by the Ministry of Finance. These ceilings have been effective since May 2010.
But the MEA has always refused to disclose information on these ceilings. The MEA believes that disclosure of ceilings may cause embarrassment to both India & the receiving government. The MEA does not stop at that and goes onto say that such disclosure will affect bilateral relations.
'Cannot Reveal the Value of Gifts Presented to Foreign Dignitaries'
MEA has a standard response to all such RTI applications seeking information of the type & cost of gifts presented by the Indian prime minister to foreign dignitaries.
In response to one application, MEA said that disclosure of the value of the gifts presented by the PM would have unintended effects on foreign relations because analysis/scrutiny and comparison between the quantum and value of gifts would be undesirable. MEA adds that such a comparison would defeat the purpose of generating goodwill between countries.
In response to an RTI, MEA responded similarly refusing to disclose any information with respect to the type/cost of the gifts presented by the PM.
Why MEA's Stand Does Not Make Any Sense
MEA’s stand on disclosure of gift-related information does not make any sense because many countries have a policy of public disclosure of the gifts given and received by their heads of state. In addition, the Government of India itself through press releases discloses the type of gifts presented to foreign dignitaries.
Type of gifts is already in the Public Domain: Refusing to reveal the type of gifts presented by the PM is silly because such information is disclosed by the government itself through various press releases.
Other countries disclose the value and type of gift: If the disclosure of information about the value of the gifts presented by the PM affects bilateral relations, then our relations with various nations must be already in trouble. This is because many countries have a policy of public disclosure of the gifts received by their heads of state including the value & source of the gift.
For example, USA has a policy of disclosing the details (including the value) of the gifts received by federal officials including the President. According to the disclosure by US Department of State, below is the list of gifts with value presented by Indian prime ministers to the president of United States and his spouse. The data is available from 2002 to 2015.
Even the United Kingdom has a policy of public disclosure of all the gifts given and received by the Prime Minister of UK.
(This article first appeared in Factly)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)