Are political parties above law and public scrutiny?

How can transparency be good for all government organs, but not good for political parties that run the governments?

Mashqura Fareedi | October 10, 2014



Political parties are the life blood of our democracy. Leaders swear by their loyalties to the party. Policies for the entire nation are made on the basis of manifestos churned out by the parties’ own vision of the country or state or region. Political parties are given statutory status under Section 29 A of the Representation of the People Act 1951. The constitution itself gives immense power to them under the 10th schedule, empowering them to oust an elected member (either an MP or MLA) from it if he/she “votes or abstains from voting in such house contrary to any direction issued by the political party”.

It is disappointing and a cause of deep concern that these very parties have not evolved to offer to the nation an example of democratic and transparent functioning.

The show-cause notice served by the central information commission (CIC) to all national parties – Congress, BJP, NCP, CPI, CPM and BSP – on September 10 is a grim reminder of this reality. The notice comes more than 15 months after the CIC’s full bench order, dated June 3, 2013, declaring the national parties as ‘public authority’ under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. The CIC had ordered them to appoint central public information officers (CPIOs) within a period of six weeks to start replying to citizens’ queries. Almost one and a half years and two notices later, none of the parties, till date, have adhered to the CIC’s order.

The CIC is the nodal body under the RTI Act. The Act has been heralded as one of the most progressive laws in the country, which transformed the functioning of government and government-run institutions. In post-RTI India, citizens have been able to acquire information about pensions, rations, passports, medical records, mark sheets and numerous other documents of public interest. The Act made government employees and institutions cognizant of the existence of the citizens whose queries and requirements need to be catered to.

The objective of the Act was not only to bring this information in the public domain and therefore make the government institutions more accountable, but in the process inform and thus empower the citizen. It was legislative evidence to the new-age adage that “information is power”.

Therefore, when the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) filed an application under the RTI Act to all national parties in 2010 requesting information about the “10 maximum voluntary contributions” received by them in the last five years, we were surprised that none of the parties provided us that information. While the Congress was prompt in letting us know that it did not fall under the purview of the RTI Act, BJP did not even bother to reply.

The case was contested for next three years. Finally, based on ADR’s complaint and a petition filed by noted RTI activist Subhash Agarwal, the CIC on June 3, 2013 declared all six national parties as ‘public authority’ under the RTI Act. This judgment generated hope in civil society which saw this as a huge leap towards transparency in political space. The parties, however, were united in their criticism of the judgment.

It may not have come as a surprise that a specific institution or organisation that has been declared a ‘public authority’ contests the grounds of the CIC’s decision. The arguments were made and heard in public space and passionately debated on TV channels. But political parties, being institutions that uphold the constitutional and legal framework, did not take this argument to the next logical and legal stage – which would be the court. Instead, in what amounts to changing the rules of the game because one owns the field, there was a move to amend the Act altogether to keep them out of its purview.

The amendment bill, which was to be tabled in the monsoon session 2013 of the Lok Sabha, witnessed strong opposition from civil society. It was thus reported in The Hindu that 30 MPs from BJP had “in principle” promised to vote against the bill if it were tabled. There were protests in various parts of the country and, soon enough, the bill was referred to a standing committee. The committee, sometime in October 2013, agreed to the proposed amendment, notwithstanding the public opinion or even that of the then attorney general, late GE Vahanvati, who advised that the bill would not sustain the test of judicial scrutiny as it was creating a “class within a class”. He also said that “political parties are the foundation of democracy and need to be given sufficient protection from malicious and motivated application[s] for which safeguards already exist under Section 8 of the Act”.

But the parties have since been engaged in a proxy media campaign highlighting unsubstantiated fears of election processes being sabotaged or having to divulge internal decisions, if they are made answerable to the public under the transparency law.

In the meantime, the bill has lapsed. But the parties have adamantly not appointed information officers to reply to citizens’ queries as yet. In February and in March 2014, the CIC issued notices to all six parties for non-compliance of the RTI Act. Minister of state for personnel and training Jitendra Singh said in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha that “declaring a political party as public authority under the RTI Act would hamper its smooth internal working, which is not the objective of the RTI Act”.

Since its enactment, what has always been contested is which authorities and institutions fall within the purview of the RTI and which do not. When the CIC brought the national parties under the purview of the RTI Act, it took into account not only the “public function” that they undertake but also the more technical aspect of “substantial funding”.

The question as to which institutions fall within the purview of the RTI Act and which do not has a simple solution: of ascertaining whether they are “substantially” financed by the government or not. Political parties, as it turns out, are hugely financed by the government: in terms of subsidised allocation of offices in prime locations of New Delhi and other regions, allocation of broadcast time in All India Radio and Doordarshan during elections, supply of electoral rolls, etc. They also get 100% tax exemptions under section 13A of the Income Tax Act, 1961.

The handling of the situation by the political parties may sadly be a mirror to their approach towards transparency. It also reflects a primitive attitude, almost reminiscent of feudalism, where the “masters” are above public scrutiny. After all, how can transparency be good for all government organs, but not good for political parties that run the government?

It may even be concluded that they are not in favour of the moot objective of the RTI Act which is to create an informed citizenry, as more information of their own finances and functioning may well raise uncomfortable questions. And is that why they are obstinately avoiding public scrutiny?

The law commission of India in its famous 170th report on ‘Reform of Electoral Laws (1999)’ states: “It is the political parties that form the government, man parliament and run the governance of the country. It is therefore, necessary to introduce internal democracy, financial transparency and accountability in the working of 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”.

Political governance is critical to everything else. Political parties have written India’s history and will decide the nation’s future trajectory. While the country, starved of a larger vision, attempts to rise from a history of corruption and policy impasse, we do hope, that if not today, then tomorrow, political parties will rise and address the demands of the times. That our politicians and the political class will exemplify for the nation the values that they want the country to emulate.

Fareedi is with the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). For more information: www.adrindia.org

(This article appeared in the October 01-15, 2014 print issue)
 

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