New Delhi

In a maiden step to make political parties publicly accountable about their financial assets, the Supreme Court on Tuesday asked six national parties, including the BJP and the Congress, to come clean and explain their hesitation to disclose complete details of their income, expenditure, donations, funding, including donor details, to the public under the Right to Information Act.

A Bench led by Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu gave the political parties six weeks to file their responses on why they should not be declared as “public authorities” under the Right to Information Act 2005, making them liable to disclose their financial assets to the public.

Besides the Congress party and the BJP, the petition has arraigned the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Nationalist Congress Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.

The Election Commission and the Union of India through the Cabinet Secretary are also parties and will have to file their responses to the apex court.

The petition was filed by noted RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal, represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan, and NGO Association for Democratic Rights (ADR) through its founder-trustee Jagdeep S. Chhokar.

The apex court's move to make the political parties accountable comes the very same week in which it refused to bring the medical expenses of sitting and retired Supreme Court judges under RTI ambit.

In this case, both ADR and Mr. Agarwal approached the Supreme Court following the attitude of non-compliance shown by the political parties to repeated orders of the Central Information Commission in both 2013 and March 16, 2015.

The CIC had declared all national and regional political parties to be public authorities under the RTI in its 2013 order. In March this year, it had reiterated the order as “final and binding”.

The petition argued that political parties should come under the RTI as they play a core role in governance, and in fact, enjoy a “stronghold” over their elected MPs and MLAs under Schedule 10 of the Constitution. The Schedule makes it compulsory for MPs and MLAs to abide by the directions of their parent parties, failing which the member stands to be disqualified.

It contended that it would be within the average voter's fundamental right to information to know the financial details of political parties in order to make an informed choice.

“Under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 all political parties must affirm their allegiance to the Constitution of India and such allegiance is made compulsory for the purpose of registration under sub-section (7) of Section 29A,” the petition argued.

“Therefore, political parties so registered must furnish information to the public under the right of information under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, since right of information has been held to be a part of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a),” it said.

It contended the Law Commission of India in its 170th Report on ‘Reform of the Electoral Laws’ in May 1999 had recommended transparency in the functioning of political parties. 

The Commission had further made recommendations on the issue of disclosure obligations of political parties in its 255th Report on Electoral Reforms.

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