India Real Time
New Delhi

India’s Central Information Commission ruled Monday that India’s main political parties must be subject to the Right to Information Act, which allows Indian citizens to seek information from most government bodies.

Until now, political parties have claimed they are not public authorities under the RTI act. Monday, the CIC – the final arbitrator in RTI cases – rejected that claim. It said the Indian National Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party India, the Nationalist Congress Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have been substantially financed by the central government and should be subject to the RTI.

The National Election Watch, a group campaigning for greater political transparency, has been calling for the parties to be subject to the RTI for the past two years. It brought the case to the information commission. Anil Bairwal and Trilochan Sastry, both leading members of the National Election Watch, spoke to The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time about what the ruling will mean for political parties and whether it will have the desired effect of making India’s democracy more transparent.

Edited excerpts:

The Wall Street Journal: After two years campaigning for political parties to be covered by the RTI Act, what is your response to the CIC’s ruling?

Anil Bairwal: This is a landmark judgment because our political parties have been very resistant to becoming more transparent. This will make them more accountable. The CIC has done an excellent job by looking at the facts, including the huge amount of funding, direct and indirect, which parties receive.

Trilochan Sastry: This is wonderful news; we have been fighting for it for two years. The RTI act was passed by Parliament in 2005 and nobody thought through all the implications of what would happen if different bodies, including political parties, were subject to it. It was neither prohibited nor mandated [for political parties to comply], it was left open. When it was put to test [with requests under the RTI] the parties decided that they didn’t want to share information.

WSJ: Why should political parties come under the RTI Act?

Mr. Bairwal: They get land allotments, office space from the state, free time on television during elections and wield very strong influence on the working of the government and functioning of Parliament. They claim to work in the public interest so should be subject to the right to information laws.

Mr. Sastry: Our organization works to improve the political system. We feel that political parties should be more transparent so that Indians will know where they get their money from, how they spend it and who they give it to.

WSJ: How do you think the parties will react to the ruling?

Mr. Sastry: They are going to get really jittery; they are going to be up against the wall with questions about funding and how they select their candidates. But the people of the country have a right to know.

WSJ: What does this mean for parties?

Mr. Bairwal: They will have to respond to requests for information about their funding streams, where they get their money from and how they select their candidates. It would be much easier for them if they comply and make declarations on their websites rather than having to respond to individual requests. At the moment, all they have to declare to the Election Commission is income of over 20,000 rupees ($350.) A lot of parties receive millions of rupees but don’t declare it.

WSJ: What will it tell us?

Mr. Sastry: Mostly what people already know: the process of selection of candidates is opaque, certainly unlikely to be democratic and decided by a few top people.

WSJ: Are parties likely to contest the ruling?

Mr. Bairwal: In the past no party came in favor of submitting to the RTI rules but they have been publicly claiming they don’t have anything to hide. If they oppose, it will make it very clear to people that political parties are not interested in making themselves transparent.

Mr. Sastry: We are prepared for their going to court to challenge the ruling, but the most sensible option is to abide by it. The third, most nasty option would be to change the law so that they can explicitly meddel with the RTI and say they are exempt.

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