The issue of political parties coming under the ambit of Right to Information Act was in the news again, after the Supreme Court issued notices to the six national parties to explain their stand. The issue dates back to 2013 when the Central Information Commission made a historic order bringing the six national parties under RTI. Since then, the parties refused to comply with the order and the matter has now reached the Supreme Court.
Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) filed a Writ Petition in the Supreme Court against the Government of India and the six National Parties that failed to comply with the Central Information Commission order bringing these parties under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI). The Supreme Court admitted this petition and issued notices to the six National parties as well as the Government of India. Here is the entire issue explained in brief.
The CIC Order
The full bench of the Central Information Commission (CIC) in its historic order on June 3rd, 2013 ruled that the Six National Parties (INC, BJP, CPI, CPM, BSP & NCP) are public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI act and that they are supposed to comply with the provisions of the act. The order cited the following reasons in detail for categorizing the political parties as Public Authorities.
- Direct & Indirect benefits by the Government like subsidized land for party offices, Income Tax exemptions, free air time on Doordarshan & All India Radio, supplying electoral roll copies free of cost during elections etc.
- Political Parties perform a public Function
- Constitutional and Statutory Status of Political Parties
The political parties on their part said that none of the benefits can be construed as substantial financing as such practices exist in most democracies. But the CIC did not agree with them.
What happened after that?
The six National parties did not comply with the decision of the CIC by not appointing a Public Information officer (PIO). In the meanwhile, the political parties unanimously decided to introduce a bill in the Lok Sabha towards the end of 2013, to amend the RTI act. This amendment would effectively nullify the CIC order and exempt Political Parties from RTI. This amendment was also supposed to be retrospective in nature. After a public outcry, the bill was referred to a department related standing committee. The bill could not be passed before the expiry of the 15th Lok Sabha and hence got lapsed.
In the meanwhile, the original petitioners moved the CIC again against the non-compliance of its orders by the political parties. The CIC conducted two hearings on the matter in November 2014 & January 2015. The political parties decided not to send any representative to these hearings. After the hearings, the CIC in a fresh order in March 2015 reiterated its earlier ruling and effectively said that it cannot do more than issuing an order and it is not in a position to get its own order implemented. Following this, the petitioners have approached the Supreme Court.
What is the real issue?
Section 29C of the Representation of People Act (R.P. Act), 1951, mandates that all donations made to Political Parties by any individual or a company, in excess of Rs. 20,000 should be reported to the Election Commission (EC) before the due date. The issue with such a rule is that parties list the names of only such individuals/companies who donate in excess of Rs 20000. The donations below Rs 20000/- do not have any record. The reports compiled by ADR based on the information available with the Election Commission reveal a very dangerous trend. Close to 75% of all the donations to political parties fall into the below 20000 category. In other words, there is no record of the source of funds for almost 3/4th of the funds received by parties. In some political parties, 100% donations fall into this category. This is one of the major reasons for demanding greater transparency in political party funding so that people get to know the source of funds. Most parties mention sale of coupons, small donations as the source but it is impossible to verify because they do not submit any proof to the Election Commission. If they come under the RTI act, then citizens can ask for such information from the political parties.
What kind of reforms are needed?
The transparency in the functioning of Political Parties was also recommended by the Law Commission of India in their 170th Report on ‘Reform of Electoral Laws (1999)’. It said, “On the parity of the above reasoning, it must be said that 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. A political party which does not respect democratic principles in its internal working cannot be expected to respect those principles in the governance of the country. It cannot be dictatorship internally and democratic in its functioning outside.”
Even the 255th report of the Law Commission of India on ‘Electoral Reforms’ made certain recommendations on contributions, reporting, Disclosure etc.