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The Big Picture – RTI: Should Political parties be in its ambit?

The Big Picture – RTI: Should Political parties be in its ambit?

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Summary:

The battle for political parties to be included in the ambit of RTI has got little tougher. The central government has filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court that political parties need not be brought under the ambit of RTI act. The government has said that bringing parties in the ambit would lead to hampering of smooth functioning of the political parties. It also has submitted that order of the central information commission in 2013 declaring political parties as public authorities under the RTI act was erroneous. All major political parties, except AAP, have also expressed similar views. The case is before the Supreme Court.

What the government says?

  • When the RTI Act was enacted, it was never visualized that political parties would be brought within the ambit of the transparency law.
  • Political parties were not established by the constitution or an act of parliament and therefore should not be under the RTI.
  • Political parties are not public authorities as they are not set up under the Constitution or any law enacted by Parliament – they can’t be treated as an institution or establishment.
  • If political parties come under the RTI it will affect their smooth internal functioning.
  • Political rivals will start using RTI tool with malicious intent.
  • There are already provisions in the Income Tax Act, 1961, and Representation of the People Act, 1951, which demand necessary transparency regarding financial aspects of political parties. These mechanisms ensure transparency in financial dealings of parties.
  • Information about a political body is already in the public domain on the website of the Election Commission.

Political parties should be brought under the ambit of RTI: Arguments “In favour”:

  • If political parties are kept out, it sets a precedent whereby other institutions can argue that they too be kept out of its purview because there are too many frivolous claims, too much paperwork, too many NGOs with suspect motivations and so on and so forth.
  • Political parties in our country occupy a very central space in democracy. People don’t vote so much for individuals as they do for parties.
  • Parties come out with great statements before elections. People vote on the basis of which party says what. Parties finally form the government. And the government’s policies are decided based on the ideologies of the political parties.
  • In India, it is widely accepted notion that fountain head of the corruption is political funding.
  • Almost all political parties have got very valuable plots allotted by the Government at prime places in New Delhi and in their respective capital cities.
  • It is therefore, necessary to introduce internal democracy, financial transparency and accountability in the working of the political parties.
  • to ensure less influence of industrial houses on policy making: Most of the parties have almost 75% of their income from unknown sources. Generally corporate and industrial houses give them funds to change policies, give illegal clearance and to hamper their competitor’s interest. It may also hamper people and national interest.
  • Political parties 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.
  • It would be within the average voter’s fundamental right to information to know the financial details of political parties.
  • 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. 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).
  • 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.

Arguments showing the public character of political bodies:

  • The criticality of the role being played by these political parties in our democratic set up and the nature of duties performed by them point towards their public character.
  • Indirect substantial financing by the central government, performance of public duty and Constitutional and legal provisions vesting them with rights and liabilities.
  • National parties are virtually funded by the state as they are exempted from filing income tax returns. The RTI Act says any non-governmental organisation substantially funded by government will be a public authority.
  • As per Section 29C of the Representation of People Act, 1951, all donations of and above Rs. 20,000/- made to political parties are required to be reported to the income tax department. This obligation cast on the political parties points towards their public character.
  • Section 80 GGB of the income tax Act provides that contribution made by an individual or company to a political party is deductible from the total income of the assesse. This provision is exclusively applicable to the political parties and is suggestive of indirect financing of the political parties by the State.