Senior CPM leader Brinda Karat has come out strongly against the idea of bringing political parties under the RTI.

File image of Brinda Karat. AFP

File image of Brinda Karat. AFP

On 11 December, she said, “We are totally against it. Snooping and spying into political parties’ internal meetings… snooping and spying is not part of democratic process… If my politburo is meeting and if somebody puts out an RTI (asking), Who said what? What business is it to anybody else or the government? Because the government can use this (information gathered under the RTI) to harass political parties.”

Such an argument makes Karat’s CPM a strange bed-fellow (or, is it that that it is not that strange anymore?) with the Congress and the BJP, apart from sundry regional parties, which have advanced exactly similar arguments to resist and defy the Central Information Commission’s unanimous decision in 2013.

The BJP-led government at the Centre had echoed the very same CPM line when it had deposed before the CIC last year. In an affidavit before the Supreme Court in August 2015, the Narendra Modi government had also submitted that bringing political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act would adversely affect their internal working and political functioning. The Congress-led UPA government was hardly any different.

Within a month of the CIC decision in June 2013, the then Manmohan Singh government had mooted a proposal for an amendment to the Right to Information Act, 2005 to specifically exclude the political parties. Among other things the draft note said:

If the political parties are held to be public authorities under the RTI Act, it would hamper their smooth internal functioning. Further, it is apprehended that political rivals might file RTI applications with malicious intentions to the CPIOs of the political parties, thereby adversely affecting their political functioning... It is proposed to bring a bill to amend the RTI Act so as to explicitly provide in the definition of public authority that public authority shall not include any political party registered under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951.

One can very well see that the Congress, the BJP and the CPM are on the same wavelength as far as the question of the RTI is concerned. What is this pretext of snooping that Karat uses to resist the purview of the RTI? Where does this 'interference in internal affairs' angle come from, as alleged by the Congress and the BJP?

The RTI Act clearly stipulates that a CPIO is warranted to provide only that information which exists on paper. The CPIO is not expected to create a new document in order to respond to a query. The CPM is free to tell an RTI applicant that there is no record about the deliberations in the politburo meeting. And no CIC would insist that the party’s internal deliberations be presented in the public domain. The Congress and the BJP too know this fact that their internal discussions are out of bounds for the larger audience.

The CIC’s decision to bring the political parties under the RTI was with a view to making their financial dealings transparent. The petitioners, Subhash Chandra Agrawal and Anil Bairwal, had urged that the political parties be asked to give complete and detailed information on their income, expenditure, funding process, donations including the details of all donors, nothing else.

File image of the Supreme Court of India. AFP

File image of the Supreme Court of India. AFP

Karat was quoted by PTI on Sunday as saying that the finances of her party were in the public domain and accounts have been filed with the Election Commission. “We are very clearly transparent,” she said. That is exactly the same plea that has been made by the Congress, the BJP and different regional parties.

A study by the National Election Watch and Association of Democratic Reforms last year had brought out clearly how all these parties are anything but transparent in giving information about their funding — how cash receipts were mentioned but no PAN details were provided; a substantial portion of the donation is shown to be small contributions but the names of the contributors are not registered.

Prashant Bhushan, noted public-cause lawyer, had quoted from the above report in his submission before the Supreme Court on this issue: “A total of Rs 6.66 crore was declared by the Congress, CPI and CPM as amounts received by cheque/DD without disclosing corresponding cheque/DD numbers, name of the bank/branch on which the cheque was drawn etc which would aid in tracking the donations.”

In an earlier case, the Supreme Court of India had observed (Dr P Nalla Thampy Terah versus Union of India and Ors):

The public belief in the prevalence of corruption at high political levels has been strengthened by the manner in which funds are collected by political parties, especially at the time of elections. Such suspicions attach not only to the ruling party but to all parties, as often the opposition can also support private vested interests as well as members of Government party. It is, therefore, essential that the conduct of political parties should be regulated in this matter by strict principles in relation to collection of funds

The Association of Democratic Reforms, in its petition to the Supreme Court last year, had made the following plea:

It is submitted that full details of all donors and their donations should be made available for public scrutiny under the RTI. It is noteworthy that the same is already in practice in various countries such as United Kingdom, Germany, United States of America, Australia, Japan and Philippines. Similar practice is also followed in France, Italy, Brazil, Bulgaria, Bhutan and Nepal. In none of the countries it is possible for sources of funds to the tune of crores of rupees to be unknown, but it is so in India

The CPM, the BJP and the Congress — and others like the BSP, SP, NCP — are aware that coming under the RTI Act will mandate them to collect only clean money, unlike what is the case today. As the Supreme Court observed, it is just not the ruling party alone, even the Opposition parties have a lot to hide.

That is why parties that are otherwise bitter political enemies have made a common cause to resist the RTI onslaught till the end

Dirty money is the glue that has turned these traditional rivals into fraternal entities.

That must end soon, if Indian democracy has to survive.

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