Should political parties be brought under the RTI? Two former central information commissioners debate
On reading The Indian Express editorial (Party police,June 5) and Pratap Bhanu Mehtas article (Party fixing,IE,June 6) about the CIC order declaring that six political parties are public authorities,I felt they had missed a crucial point. The decision of the commission has been based on the RTI Act. The act states that all public authorities are obliged to give information as per its provisions. Section 2 (h) of the act states that a non-government organisation substantially financed,directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government,is also included in the definition of a public authority. This was the only matter the commission was called upon to determine. The commission looked at the figures presented to it,and these appeared to show that crores of rupees of government money had indeed been given to the political parties,which has been detailed in its order. After this,the only issue for the commission to determine was whether funds over Rs 100 crore could be considered substantial funding. The commission concluded that this was substantial funding,and hence ruled that the political parties were public authorities as defined under the act and should,therefore,be willing to part with information to citizens as per the law. There are a number of high court judgments that have confirmed this interpretation.
This determination has nothing to do with the Binny judgment and is primarily based on the fact that the law prescribes the NGO as a public authority. The act does not envisage covering any body that performs public functions as a public authority. Though these have been mentioned in the CIC order,the main reason is the substantial funding received by the parties. It also appears that the views expressed so far in this paper appear to believe that political parties will now have to be accountable to the commission. The RTI Act envisages that information on record must be furnished to any citizen,unless the entity is exempt as per the provisions of Section 8 or 9. The information commission comes into the picture only when there is a dispute between the citizen and a public information officer on the issue of providing information. The prime minister would be subject to the authority of an income tax officer in matters relating to his personal income tax,and a chief minister may be questioned or arrested by a police officer. Do we object to this accountability? Democracy requires that everyone is accountable to the law,and there are multiple statutory authorities who are expected to ensure compliance with different laws. To say this constitutes handing over control to the commission is hyperbole. The RTI is a citizen empowerment tool,not a commission empowerment one.
The real issue to be debated is,should citizens have a right to know about the political parties that run governments? The Supreme Court had ruled before the advent of the RTI Act that citizens have a right to know about the assets and criminal records of those who stand for elections. A citizen can meaningfully use his vote only if she is informed about the candidates and political parties. It can be argued that the citizens need to know about the functioning of political parties is greater than his need to know about individual candidates. I must point out that RTI will not be able to uncover the illegal money used by political parties,unless they are being kept in their records.
The act cannot,and does not,allow the commission or citizens to question the practices of these parties. It will only uncover records or the fact that there are no records kept by them. Citizens will become more aware,which may influence their votes,and perhaps the way political parties work. Is this citizen awareness and pressure a factor that should make us uneasy? In the last seven years,I cannot think of a major activity or institution where any harm has befallen those who had to give information. I admit some mistakes and corruption have been unearthed. These will slowly change the government,and institutions will become more accountable.
One more question that needs to be asked is,what is the harm if political parties subject themselves to the RTI? Presently,they are acting like children who do not want to go to school on the first day. Even if some embarrassing information is revealed,it would lead to improvements in their functioning. Transparency is a tool that improves the workings of individuals and institutions. This decision,if accepted in the right spirit,will enrich our democracy and political parties.