RTI & Political Parties – RSTV: The Big Picture

Should Political Parties be brought under the ambit of RTI?

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RTI vs National Parties
RTI vs National Parties

GS II – Important aspects of governance, transparency and accountability, e-governance- applications,models, successes, limitations, and potential; citizens charters, transparency & accountability and institutional and other measures.

 

Context:

CIC on June 3rd, 2013 ordered that, the 6 national parties the BJP, the Congress, the BSP, the NCP, the CPI and the CPI-M  are under the ambit of RTI Act. It also recognised the political parties as public body under RTI Act.(Trinamool Congress was recognised as national party in 2016.)

The order has not been challenged in the higher courts but the political parties have refused to entertain the RTI applications directed at them. Several activists have approached the Supreme Court on the grounds of non-compliance of the CIC order and the matter is pending.

As of 31st May 2018, Election Commission of India clarified that national parties are public authorities under the RTI Act as declared by the Central Information Commission.

Should Political Parties be brought under the ambit of RTI?

Arguments in favour:

  • According to Section 29C of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, any contributions above Rs 20,000 to political parties are to be reported. In order to bypass this check, political parties take donations in cash under Rs 20,000 and not declare their source. A study conducted by the Association of Democratic Reforms found that 70% of the funding to political parties comes from ‘unknown’ sources.
  • Big businesses and corporate houses are major donors of political parties, they get favours in return when the parties they fund come to power. Most of the donations are made illegally, through off-the-books transactions, and the parties repay their benefactors in terms of policy concessions or amendments to rules.
  • Many business houses support more than one party, extending donations both legally and illegally as black money. Thus, requiring political parties to open up their financial transactions, the donations they receive and the expenses they incur, to public scrutiny is imperative to bring down levels of corruption and make them more accountable.
  • Parties have been given 100% exemption from Income Tax, prime property in Lutyens Delhi and in different parts of the country. Further, they are given free electoral rolls, free air time on the All India Radio which are all direct benefits from public money.

If we take an average, six national parties alone have collectively declared an income of Rs 843.48 crore every year since 2004-05. In addition to this, they are exempted from paying income tax under the law as long as they file their income tax return every assessment year.

Arguments Against:

  • National political parties have been claiming that they are transparent because their finances are already in the public domain, in the form of IT returns to Income tax department and the cash donation disclosure to election commission under Representation of the People Act, 1951.
  • Political Parties argue that there is a difference between funding and rebate. Further, when it comes to rebate, there are many NGO’s which work in the country which should be under the purview of the RTI. Apart from NGO’s, a lot of media houses should also come under its purview then.
  • They also fear that, internal function mechanism of parties will be exposed if parties are under RTI. Moreover, they may even get RTI pleas from their own party members regarding decisions of the leadership.

Supreme Court and RTI

In State of UP vs Raj Narain (1975), the apex court declared that right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) included the right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way and by their public functionaries.

In S.P.Gupta vs Union of India & others (1981), the Supreme Court reiterated the same. In People’s Union of Civil Liberties vs UOI (2004), the right to information was further elevated to the status of a human right, necessary for making governance transparent and accountable. It also emphasised that governance must be made participatory.

The Way Forward

  • There is a serious shortcoming in the RTI Act. Unlike most of the laws of this kind, there is no provision for the CIC to enforce its own decisions. Hence CIC must be given more teeth to implement its decisions akin to contempt of court proceedings.
  • Regarding fears of disclosure of internal functioning, political parties can be exempted from revealing such sensitive or critical information.
  • In conclusion, it is strongly believed that public opinion will have to be built up more. With strong public opinion, seeking more transparency in the functioning of every institution, and not just the political parties is perhaps the only way forward. This has to be coupled with a clear verdict from the highest court of the land.

Information is an antidote to corruption; it limits abuse of discretion, protects civil liberties, encourages people’s participation and brings awareness of laws and policies.

The basic premise on which democracy operates is transparency, therefore the first step towards securing our Indian democracy is to demand transparency in the funding of political parties.