Updated: July 9, 2015 4:24:23 am
The Supreme Court has asked the Centre, the Election Commission and six national parties to respond to a plea seeking political outfits to be brought under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Parties, including the Congress, BJP, BSP, CPM, CPI and NCP, have maintained that they do not constitute a public authority as defined in the RTI Act and, hence, are beyond its ambit. This is a spurious argument. The Central Information Commission (CIC) had in 2013 exposed the hollowness of the claim and ruled that political parties fit the definition of a public authority, and that they should appoint central public information officers and appellate authorities as prescribed in the RTI Act. The SC has been seized of the matter now because the parties ignored the CIC.
Political parties claim they are responsible under the Representation of the People Act (RPA) and submit details of their expenses to the Election Commission and income tax authorities. These, they hold, make their functioning sufficiently transparent and accountable. But this argument is not convincing enough for them to evade rigorous examination under the RTI. For instance, political parties need to submit details of donations only above Rs 20,000 to the tax department. What about smaller contributions, which could make up a substantial part of income? The claim to be anything but a public authority is untenable because, as the CIC had pointed out, the parties avail of government largesse in the form of office space, land, talk time on public broadcasters and so on. The RTI Act is clear that an organisation that receives substantial government aid should be ready for public scrutiny. The technicalities apart, political parties are primarily public platforms. As prime movers in the legislature and the executive, they indirectly make laws and shape public policy. Since they claim to be of, by and for the people, they are public authorities in the deepest sense of the term.
But their reluctance to be transparent to public scrutiny is eroding public confidence, since corruption is perceived to owe in great measure to the opacity of election funding. It is appalling to find the very same agents who legislated the RTI Act refusing to be under its purview on spurious pretexts. The immunity sought by political parties from the RTI Act is an affront to the democratic process in which they are involved, and they should not persist in this absurdity.
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