New Delhi

Information Act

Are political parties public or private bodies?The Central Information Commission (CIC) on Monday, June 3, 2013, stunned the entire political spectrum by extending the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act to cover six major political parties, namely the Congress, BJP, NCP, CPI-M, CPI and BSP. The Congress which dominates the UPA coalition at the centre was first to recover its wits and debunk the order as ‘adventurist’ and ‘harmful to democratic institutions’. Union MinisterSalman Khurshid argued it is important to keep a practical control of RTI objectives as they cannot be allowed to ‘run riot’.

Minister of State in PMO, V Narayansamy, said: “Political parties, according to me, are not Government organisations. These are private organisations. I will study the judgment and then be able to comment on it”.

As it is obvious that the ruling is going to be contested in the Supreme Court, it would be in order to examine the reasoning behind the CIC verdict, made in response to separate complaints from activists Subhash Agarwal and Anil Bairwal.

Briefly, Agarwal sought information from the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party regarding, inter alia, receipts of payments to party coffers, details of payments and mode of payment made by the party in the last three years, whether party members in legislatures and civic bodies have to make compulsory contributions to party funds and details thereof, corruption charges against elected members and action taken, proposals made to the Election Commission for electoral reforms.

Bairwal asked the six major parties the sources and amounts of the ten largest contributions received from the financial year 2004-5 to 2009-10, modes of payment, names and addresses of all voluntary contributors of over Rs one lakh in this period. The responses were broadly that the respective parties were not a public authority and were not obliged to provide the information.

The activists contended that the said parties had got premium land in Delhi/New Delhi at zonal variant institutional rate which was far below the prevailing market rate and hence came under the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act. Various houses and buildings had been allotted to the political parties by central and State Governments, either free or at concessional rates, which amount to indirect financing. They received tax exemption under Section 13A of the Income Tax Act. The State also indirectly financed political parties by allotting them free air time on All India Radio and Doordarshan during elections, which has a commercial value.

The Central Information Commission on July 31, 2012, clubbed the complaints and constituted a Full Bench comprising Satyananda Mishra, Chief Information Commissioner; Annapurna Dixit, Information Commissioner; and ML Sharma, Information Commissioner.

It noted that the Law Commission of India (170th report on Reform of Electoral Laws, 1999) had urged transparency in the functioning of political parties: “… if democracy and accountability constitute the core of our constitutional system, the same concepts must also apply to and bind the political parties which are integral to parliamentary democracy. It is the political parties that form the Government, man the Parliament and run the governance of the country. It is therefore, necessary to introduce internal democracy, financial transparency and accountability in the working of the political parties…”

The activists argued that under Articles 102(2) and 191(2) of the 42nd Amendment and 10th Schedule of the Constitution respectively, political parties have been granted constitutional and statutory status. A body or entity does not become a political party in the legal sense until registered by the Election Commission of India under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and this registration bestows it with the colour of public authority.

The Commission agreed with the contention of political parties that they have not been established or constituted by and under the Constitution; nor by any other law made by Parliament or State Legislature; nor are these bodies owned or controlled by any appropriate Government. But they have been brought into existence first as political parties and then as national level political parties by the Election Commission of India, thereby entitling them to a host of benefits, the principal among them being the right to accept contribution from both individual citizens and private companies and also to get complete income tax exemption on all their incomes.

Then, on account of their recognition by the Election Commission of India as national level political parties they are entitled to the common symbol on which their candidates can contest elections. Thus, at least in spirit, these political parties can be said to have been constituted by their registration by the Election Commission of India, a fact akin to the establishment or constitution of a body or institution by an appropriate Government.

Under Section 2(h)(ii), any non-governmental organisation which is substantially financed, directly or indirectly, by funds provided by the appropriate Government would become a public authority for the purpose of the Right to Information Act. The CIC considered the judgements of various courts which upheld that the Indian Olympic Association, Sanskriti School, Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association, Chandigarh Club, Chandigarh, India International Centre and Delhi Public School, Rohini, were deemed to be a Public Authority under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act.

The CIC concluded that for a private entity to qualify as a public authority, substantial financing does not mean majority financing, but funding by the appropriate Government to meet a ‘felt need of a section of the public or to secure larger societal goals’. This covers the large tracts of land in prime areas of Delhi placed at the disposal of Political Parties at exceptionally low rates, along with huge Government accommodations at cheap rates, Income Tax exemptions and free air time at AIR and Doordarshan at election time. Hence, the six political parties were deemed to be public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act.

Is CIC’s order bringing political parties under purview of RTI dangerous?

Further, as political parties are the life blood of our polity and the democratic State is built upon the party system, elections are contested on party basis, and political parties set the development agenda for the nation and society, it follows that they continuously perform a public duty and should become accountable to the public.

Political parties are non-governmental bodies, but directly or indirectly influence the exercise of governmental power. One cannot argue that all State organs must be transparent, but not political parties. The Commission ruled that the people of India must know the source of expenditure incurred by parties and candidates during elections. It asked political parties to appoint public information officers and appellate authorities at their respective headquarters within six weeks.

As few political parties are in a mood to comply with this request, the matter is expected to go to the Supreme Court. The decision on whether political parties are ‘private organisations’ will have a bearing on the eventual fate of the controversial Board of Control for Cricket in India.

Political parties to come under RTI Act, rules CIC

© Association for Democratic Reforms
Privacy And Terms Of Use
Donation Payment Method