Not this way

The Central Information Commission’s (CIC) ruling that political parties come within the purview of the Right to Information Act may not be based on sound logic as the mere fact that they receive certain government facilities and public funding do not make them public entities.

There is no doubt that the functioning of political parties, especially their sources of income and expenditure, need to become more transparent, but making them answerable to thousands of queries under the RTI may not be the right way of doing it.

As there are hundreds of political parties with intense rivalries, the compulsions of meeting the needs of RTI could make them dysfunctional without achieving the central purpose of the CIC’s order of bringing openness in their activities.

 The effect of the CIC order, passed by the full bench of the commission on the basis of petitions filed by RTI activists, will be to make political parties answerable with respect to their activities like funding, expenditure on elections and under other heads, membership, internal elections, selection of candidates and other matters. The rationale for it is that the parties are allocated land at concessional rates. They are also provided cheap accommodation. They are given free air time in the public broadcasting network. And they benefit from various tax exemptions and concessions. But the mere use of public funds or other entitlements cannot make them public authorities. There is no doubt that transparency is needed in the functioning of political parties. But it might be stretching the RTI law too far to make it cover the operations of political parties. Existing laws in the country  can ensure that parties disclose information about themselves. The pressure of public opinion can be built up  to make the parties abide by the best norms and the laws. There is no doubt that parties which  function in the public realm should be accountable to the people. But the people should themselves ensure this.

The CIC has directed parties to put in place a system mandated by the RTI law to respond to  requests for information. But the parties have the option to go to court in appeal against the ruling.  They are bound to do so. Union minister Salman Khurshid has given a hint of that  by commenting that the RTI’s objectives cannot be allowed to run riot. Other parties may also feel so. It would be worthwhile to wait for a final judicial view on the matter.

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