The Asian Age
New Delhi

The CIC has held that parties are given prime land at concessional rates and get tax-exemptions. What if a party refuses any of this? Will the CIC’s definition then fall?

The Central Information Commission has reached the intriguing conclusion that political parties have the “character of public authority” under the Right to Information Act as they perform public functions. The CIC has thus decreed that, to start with, six parties — Congress, BJP, CPI(M), CPI, NCP and BSP — submit to RTI norms.

The enactment of the RTI Act and creation of the CIC are landmark events. They provide the citizen with avenues to demand transparency in governmental functioning. The CIC’s concern of bringing parties under RTI is doubtless guided by desire to keep public space transparent, not least because parties spend considerable sums at election time, raising suspicions about corruption.
Nevertheless, to regard parties as “public authorities”, although they are not government-controlled (as the CIC order rightly notes), is to miss the meaning of those words. A public authority — or its parent department — has inherent in it the power to penalise. This is not the case with a political party, which as an entity is quite different from a government. This is not a lexical matter, but one of substance.
The CIC believes parties are like public authorities as they discharge public functions. This is quite extraordinary. Temples, churches, mosques, clubs and charitable bodies also perform public functions. Should they too be brought within the RTI’s ambit?
The CIC has held that parties are substantially financed by the Centre as they have been given prime land at concessional rates, get income tax-exemptions, and free airtime on the state broadcaster before elections. What if a party refuses any of this? Will the CIC’s definition then fall? In any case, many entities, including individual taxpayers and companies, get tax exemptions. Does that mean they are financed by the government and must submit themselves to RTI provisions?
In India, unlike many countries, we are fortunate to have functioning political parties to lubricate our democracy. Political disputes are not settled with the gun. So if the system offers parties facilities like free TV time or land at cheap rates (which many others also get), this is done to strengthen the sinews of democracy, and can’t be seen as a favour. It can’t be deemed to undermine the independent character of parties.
In sum, the CIC’s views appear misguided. As far as checking corruption goes, the Election Commission has advanced a number of proposals for parties in the context of elections. These will be a lot more effective than the RTI route for parties.

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