Political parties under RTI ambit
As was being expected, the UPA government moved to keep the political parties out of the RTI Act. The Union Cabinet, on August 1, approved draft amendments to nullify the Central Information Commission (CIC) order bringing six national political parties under the orbit of the Act. The amendments are expected to be moved in the monsoon session of Parliament beginning on August 5 and voted upon as there is unity among most of the parties that the CIC has exceeded its jurisdiction by passing such an order. Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath told mediapersons in Delhi that the government chose to approve the amendments because majority of the political parties want the amendments.
When the CIC, on June 3, held that the political parties are ‘public authorities’ and ‘answerable to citizens under RTI Act’, majority countrymen thought that now the era of transparency would begin in the Indian politics. But the way it has been hampered by the ruling dispensation, proves how the UPA has acquired a doctorate in killing its own institutions.
The CIC, a quasi judicial body, had set a six week deadline for Congress, BJP, NCP, CPI-M, CPI and BSP to appoint Public Information Officers to respond to RTI queries, but the deadline expired on July 15 and none of the major political party adhered to its ruling. However, a handful of regional parties including Aam Aadmi Party of Arvind Kejriwal, Chennai-based Loksatta Party, J&K based PDP and National Panthers Party are claimed to have accepted the directives.
The CIC ruling had come on two petitions filed by Anil Bairwal of Association of Democratic Reforms and RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, who had directed their RTI applications to the parties, which were made party by the CIC when the matter reached the panel. Subhash Agrawal had sought information from Congress and BJP, while Bairwal had sought details of funding and donors from the six major parties. Not getting any response, they approached the CIC seeking declaration of political parties as public authorities under the RTI Act after which citizens can seek information from them by paying Rs 10 as the fee.
“In view of the nature of public functions performed by the political parties…We conclude that political parties in question are public authorities under section 2(h) of the RTI Act,” the bench, comprising Chief Information Commissioner Satyanand Mishra and Information Commissioners Annapurna Dixit and ML Sharma, had said in a 54 page judgement. The Bench also held that income tax exemptions granted to the parties and free air time given by All India Radio and Doordarshan at the time of elections also substantially contribute to indirect financing from the government.
On performing of public duty point raised by Bairwal, the CIC held that political parties ‘affect the lives of the citizens, directly or indirectly in every conceivable way and are continuously engaged in performing public duty. It is, therefore, important that they become accountable to public’. “We are of the opinion that bringing the political parties in the ambit of RTI Act is likely to usher an era of transparency in their functioning. Besides, it would result in strengthening of democracy and democratic institutions in the country,” the Commission said.
According to reports the commission also took into account I-T exemptions given to political parties and found that during last three years the Congress got Rs 300.92 crore, BJP (Rs 141.25 crore), BSP (Rs 39.84 crore), CPM (Rs 18.13 crore), CPI (Rs 24 lakh) and NCP (Rs 9.64 crore) as tax relief.
The CIC directive had naturally created a tremor among the political parties, as no major party agreed to the directives. Rather they displayed a rare show of unanimity saying that they provide whole information about their finance and organisational matters to the Election Commission of India and income tax authorities, and that can be accessed from there. When Organiser contacted them the parties dodged the questions whether they would appoint Public Information Officers and Appellate Authorities. See the boxes to know which party said what.
Ajay Maken Congress spokesperson: We have full faith in the institutions under the RTI. We do not want to demean any institution under the RTI Act. We want to strengthen the institutions of RTI even more because it is the Congress party and the UPA government that brought the RTI Act.
Brinda Karat, CPI(M): Our opposition is not so much to making the funding public, but to exposing our internal mechanisms and processes. We use people’s money and we are accountable for it. But there’s no question of anybody trying to get the internal discussions and processes of the party.
D Raja, Communist Party of India general secretary: The CIC crossed its mandate in this ruling as political parties already submit their income tax returns; criminal and educational backgrounds of their candidates with government bodies. Do you want to know internal matters of the party, like, why one person was chosen over another?
Ambeth Rajan, national treasurer, BSP: Only Behnji can comment on the issue. She is the only spokesperson of our party. She is expected to explain the party stand on it shortly.
Dr Subramanian Swamy, president, Janata Party: If questions to political parties are permitted under RTI, then the Income Tax Department must be asked to answer them. Other non-income questions, if it does not require revealing strategies and other secret decisions, may be permitted under RTI.
KC Tyagi, national spokesperson, JD(U): Political parties are not profit making institutions. They have been formed to take up the issues of the public. If some people like A Raja or Suresh Kalmadi have amassed huge money through unfair means, there are provisions in the law to punish them. Why the entire system is punished for the crimes committed by them. Whatever information the Election Commission seeks, we provide. Apart from the EC, there is income tax department to keep a watch on our financial dealings. Every party formulates strategies in its own style. They could be forced to reveal those strategies through RTIs, which cannot be permitted.
Dr Rajeev Rai, national secretary, Samajwadi Party: All information pertaining to any registered political party is with the Election Commission of India and the income tax department. It is illogical to seek the same information from us. Anyone who needs it can contact both those agencies. Why burden and harass us for the same information. It will serve no purpose.