In this essay, Harsha Uikey discusses the merits of bringing political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information Act, 2005.
The fundamental definition of democracy that we have studied in our textbooks is that democracy involves a government of the People, for the People and by the People.[i] This put forth the basic concept that the individual citizen is a sovereign in her/his own right. This in turn emphasizes the point that information should be shared with citizens. The power of information is that it ensures transparency in the working of this people’s government as it will keep a check on peremptoriness and corruption. The critical role being played by political parties in our democratic set-up and the nature of duties performed by them also point towards their public character, bringing them within the ambit of Section 2(h). The basic idea of right to information is to empower the citizens and to increase transparency and accountability, in the functioning of the system. The RTI has been given the status of a fundamental right.[ii]
While the RTI Act was in the process of becoming a reality, Section 4 of the Act was drafted keeping in mind the commitment of the Parliament to ensure that “it shall be a constant endeavor of every public authority to the steps in accordance with the requirements of clause (b) of sub section (1) to provide as much information suo moto to public at regular intervals.”[iii] The Supreme Court, after accepting a petition filed to include national political parties into the RTI Act, has held that political parties come within its ambit.
A “public authority” under RTI is either a state agency or any other body majorly financed by the state. So the very first reason why they should be made accountable to the public is because they are funded by the state (directly or indirectly). Transparency is required not only in functional matters but also in the decision-making process and exercise of authorities. Political parties are directly and indirectly are financed in many ways. Their income tax information is often misleading. Donations made to the political parties are not always voluntary. The huge amount of money received by the parties is most often obtained through illegal means. To keep a check on this flow of black money, parties should disclose their financial information.
Former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said that RTI cannot disclose the information which is not open to be disclosed. “Through RTI we can only get information which is on record.”[iv] Those parties which use black money for their campaigns will never keep a record of it. So it might not be possible to get these records through RTI.
Under Article 19(1) (a) citizen has the right to information about the political parties, to make informed decisions while choosing their representatives. The Supreme Court decision of bringing political parties under RTI may bring a positive change in governance. But no doubt political parties have largely disagreed to this decision. The arguments against this decision say that it is “based on surmise and conjecture. The order is without jurisdiction and has no sanction of law, therefore it is per se nullity and unenforceable. The petition said political parties have income from voluntary contributions from their members, individuals or companies.”[v]
In an analysis of the CIC’s order in The Indian Express, a political litigant, Bhanu Mehta, argues that “What CIC’s order has done is made the political parties accountable to them rather than the voters.”[vi] He also claimed that the logic behind the decision is a flawed because any organization supported by the state in any way becomes a public body even if it belongs to the private sector. The whole issue has led to a debate whether this decision has gone overboard because a lot of information is already in the public domain. The manner in which the political parties work, it is hard to bring them suddenly under RTI. Also there is a fear of confidential and even general information being misused by the other political parties.
It must be ensured that decision-making is separated from other processes of these political parties as it is important to recognize the difference between political and legal accountability and related mechanisms. The step taken can also set an example in curbing corruption since the unaccountable funding to these political parties is also problematic not only for the public but also for the security, sovereignty and integrity of our country.
When political parties can call themselves public servant and claim to be working for the good of the public, then they should see themselves within the ambit of “Public Authorities. The RTI banner on the political parties will make them accountable to the public and may even result in good governance.
[i] Shailesh Gandhi, The Forgotten provision : 4, The Hindu, August 17,2013 23:54IST
[ii] Bennet colman v. UOI, 157 ITR 812 (Bom.)
[iv] Danish, Political parties under rti: welcome move or terrible idea, F.India, June 6 2013, 10:56 IST
[v] PTI, CIC not competent to bring political parties under RTI, says Congress, Indian Express, June 20, 2016
[vi] Arun George, Political parties under RTI: why the CIC’s decision doesn’t do much, FIRSTPOST, June 6 2013