Mumbai Mirror
​RTI will not harm parties
The three-member bench of the CIC ruled that the six national political parties — Congress, BJP, NCP, CPI, CPI (M) and the BSP — would be declared as ‘public authorities’
More transparency in functioning of political groups can only strengthen democracy.

The Central Information Commission passed a landmark judgment on June 3. The full three-member bench of the CIC ruled that the six national political parties, i.e. Congress, BJP, NCP, CPI, CPI (M) and the BSP would be declared as "public authorities". This means that these six parties would now be subject to the Right to Information (RTI) law of 2005.

This landmark judgment was the culmination of a journey which began three years ago. The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) had asked political parties about details of their finances, donations and donors. It is important to know who is funding the parties, since it can create a potential conflict of interest. Since parties come to power through elections, and gain executive power by forming the government, it is important to be transparent about the source and quantum of their funding.

Fighting elections is becoming an extremely expensive affair. So keeping party and electoral finances a secret can only raise suspicions of quid pro quo. So ADR asked for details from the parties, using the RTI route. The parties flatly refused, saying that they were private entities, and were not subject to the RTI law. ADR then went to the CIC, and lodged a complaint along with Mr Subhash Agarwal. The process of hearing began. ADR's contention was that knowledge and wide dissemination of party finances was in public interest, hence the political parties should be declared as "public authorities".

The parties said that we give details of our expenses to the Election Commission. We file our returns with the income tax department. Based on this filing, both the donor and parties enjoy 100 percent tax exemption. So since all this information is in the public domain, why force us to be under RTI? ADR countered by saying that parties enjoy substantial funding from the government directly and indirectly. The double benefit of 100 per cent means, that out of every Rs 100 transaction between donor and party, the government loses about Rs 53 as tax revenue.

Additionally parties are given free or subsidized land and bungalows in prime locations in Delhi and other state capitals. They are also given free air time on Doordarshan and All India Radio. So, on the basis of section 2 (h) (ii) of the RTI Act these parties are substantially funded by the state, and hence deemed to be public authorities.

There were many arguments, and counter-arguments. But finally, the CIC ruled that the six national parties are public authorities and must submit to RTI. Note that India has more than 1200 political parties, and only 6 are under the RTI ambit. The parties are all protesting, and reject the CIC order. CIC members are on par with justices of the Supreme Court.

The parties will now go to courts to overturn the CIC verdict. They claim that RTI will be misused to ask questions like: why was X and not Y, given a ticket? What is the party strategy in upcoming elections? The CPI said that it is only accountable to its members, and not citizens at large.

The RTI section 8 has enough provisions to deny information, if it harms strategic interests of the organization. The information officer, as well as the appellate authority will be appointed by the party itself, and will be its member. So what is the fear of misuse of RTI? But the bigger point is, surely more transparency cannot hurt our democracy? Political parties, unlike any other private or public institutions, are integral to the functioning of our democracy. They have unique privileges. They are not subject to any regulator, or any regulation. Companies have company law. Cooperatives, trusts, hospitals, temples, schools, colleges are all regulated entities. Not parties. So, the RTI verdict is the first time that parties face some citizen scrutiny on their inner working. Surely that's a good thing.

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