It all started with the refusal by 6 political parties to provide information under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI) to activists Subhash Agrawal and Anil Bairwal of Association of Democratic Reforms. The activists had sought to know from these parties the finances and details of voluntary contributions received by them to which a curt reply was that they do not come under the purview of the RTI Act.
Following this, a bench of the Central Information Commission (CIC) presided over by its Chief Information Commissioner, Shri Satyanand Mishra, after hearing the appeal, pronounced its verdict last Monday (June 3, 2013) that 6 political parties – Congress, BJP, CPM, CPI, NCP and BSP – fulfil the criteria of being public authorities under the RTI Act, 2005. And thereby they need to supply the information sought for to these appellant apart from discharging some statutory obligations as described in the Act.
What seem to have impressed the bench was Bairwal submitting three principal points in support of his assertion that the political parties were within the purview of the RTI Act:
(a) Indirect substantial financing by the central government,
(b) Performance of public duty and,
(c) Constitutional and legal provisions vesting them with rights and liabilities.
In its wake, it was argued that large tracts of land in prime areas of Delhi have been placed at the disposal of political parties at exceptionally low rates. Besides, sprawling government accommodations at hugely cheap rates have been allotted to these political parties. All these tantamount to bestowing financial benefits to them. In addition, the Income Tax exemptions granted to political parties and free air time given by All India Radio and Doordarshan at the time of elections also substantially contribute to indirect financing from the government, it was pointed out.
The bench held that the political parties affect the lives of the citizens, directly and indirectly in every conceivable way and are continuously engaged in performing public duty. It is, therefore, important that they become accountable to public.
Another significant observation of the bench was: ‘political parties are the unique institutions of the modern constitutional state. These are essentially political institutions and are non-governmental. The uniqueness lies in the fact that despite being non-governmental, they come to wield or directly and indirectly influence exercise of governmental power.’
At the end, the operative part of the CIC’s order read thus: “We have no hesitation in concluding that INC/AICC, BJP, CPI-M, CPI, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the Central government and therefore they are held to be public authorities under section 2 (h) of the RTI Act, 2005.”
No sooner the CIC pronounced its verdict, the reactions of the political parties across the broad spectrum have been fast and furious, quite expectedly though.
CPM slammed the CIC ruling terming it as a serious infringement on inner party functioning. It further contended that a political party was a voluntary association of citizens who believe in the ideology, programmes and leadership and it was accountable to its membership. The CIC’s decision is based on a fundamental misconception about the role of the political parties – the CPI (M) Politburo opined thus.
Congress termed it as ‘adventurist’ approach that would harm democratic institutions. Congress leader Janardan Dwivedi suggested that the CIC move would encroach upon the right to privacy of political organisations which don’t receive any grants from the government and are voluntary organisations.
Expressing ‘astonishment and shock’, JD (U) chief Sharad Yadav said the order was ‘no way justified’ as ‘political parties are not shops’.
BJP, however, felt nothing wrong in the CIC order, saying that the party is not against anything that brings transparency and accountability which is equally applicable to all.
Now, in order to have a better appreciation of the issue at hand, let’s take a closer look at an all important section 2(h) of RTI Act, 2005, on which hinges the CIC ruling. It reads thus:
“Public Authority” means any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted-
(a) by or under the Constitution;
(b) by any other law made by Parliament;
(c) by any other law made by State Legislature;
(d) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government and includes any
i. Body owned, controlled or substantially financed;
ii. Non-government organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government
The CIC seems to have taken the stance that the provisions of Section 2(h) (d) (ii), by implications, necessarily apply to political parties in our parliamentary democratic system. This interpretation, however, is under challenge and has inevitably thrown up a vociferous debate that’s likely to get louder in the days to follow and is also likely to witness a pitched battle between the two sides – the political parties joining hands together on one and the activists now armed with the CIC order on the other.
The battle from now on, however, is to be centred, among other points, on purely legal and technical standpoint and secondly, on whether the CIC – a quasi-judicial body – is vested with the authority to assign its interpretations to provisions as contained in the RTI Act.
To a discerning observer, the dice may seem to be loaded somewhat in favour of the activist appellants whose contentions based on the premise/principals were strengthened and upheld by the CIC. There may be another reason for this though. The Preamble of the RTI Act, 2005, among other things, states as follows:
“AND WHEREAS democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning and to contain corruption and to hold Governments and their instrumentality (s) accountable to the governed.”
In any case, nevertheless, this battle is going to go the full distance no matter who wins the day in Delhi High Court where the political parties are headed for next. The Supreme Court eventually getting into the frame on this issue would merely be a question of time. We may, in the meanwhile, rejoice and appreciate the efforts of the CIC for setting a new benchmark in transparency in India’s democratic polity.