Politics under RTI spells chaos

Politics under RTI spells chaos

The Central Information Commission’s ruling bringing political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Those hailing it claim that it would set a new benchmark for transparency in governance. The critics, however, feel that it has opened a pandora’s box.

If the political parties are made to open up to the queries under the RTI Act, then, they say, it would expose each and every organisation, including those from the private sector and industries to the same regime. There would be no ground left to keep them aside.
Interestingly, the Freedom of Information Law of the US, Sweden and other European countries does not cover political parties.

Out of 89 countries having transparency law governing political parties, India would now be the third one after Poland and Nepal.

The apex information panel under the transparency law held that since the parties are allotted land and bungalows at cheaper and concessional rates, enjoy tax benefits on donations, they could be described as public authorities falling under the purview the RTI Act.

The free air time given to them on AIR and Doordarshan for campaign at the time of elections was said to have contributed to substantial financing of the political parties by the central government.

The main reliance of the CIC’s decision was Section 2 (h) (ii) of the RTI Act as it concluded that the political parties were substantially financed by the government. So, they need to be answerable to the queries under the RTI Act.

It goes without saying that the other provisions like Section 2 (a), (b), (c) and (d) could not be applied to political parties. But here also, the full bench of the CIC disagreed.
It said: “If not strictly within the letter of this particular provision (d), but at least, in spirit, these political parties can be said to have been constituted by their registration by the Election Commission of India, a fact akin to the establishment or constitution of a body or institution by an appropriate government.”

Advocate Amit Anand Tiwari, who argued at length on behalf of the NCP before the CIC, counters the reasoning by saying, “recognition” given to the political parties by the EC cannot be called “creation under the statute”.

“Parliament, the Supreme Court and the High Courts, various tribunals have been created (established) by the Constitution. But, political parties are voluntary organisations which merely get recognition from the EC,” he points out.

By CIC’s logic, a corporate body created under the Companies Act would also come under the RTI Act.

No doubt, the purpose of RTI Act is to bring transparency and accountability in the functioning of those entities which affect citizens’ lives.

But, if one takes the argument of substantial financing or tax relief granted to political parties as one of the reasons for dragging them under the RTI, then by the same logic private industries should also be covered under it, as they too enjoy tax exemption under various schemes such as special economic zones (SEZs).

The industrial units also get so many other benefits. For example, they are allocated plots at subsidised rates after having been established under the provisions of a particular law.
The CIC, however, unsuccessfully tried to demolish the logic by claiming that the political parties enjoy “almost unfettered exemption” from payment of Income Tax. In case of any other charitable or non-profit, non-government organisation, the benefit is conditional, it averred.

The panel has gone to the ludicrous extent of pointing out that the political parties are given free electoral rolls, which could also be construed as substantial financing.

Philosophy of RTI

The very philosophy of the transparency law is to make the government accountable to the people. But to extend it to all public and private institutions would render the whole exercise unwieldy and also dilute the very purpose.

That’s why, Finance Minister P Chidambaram described the CIC judgment as “unusual interpretation of the RTI Act”. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid went on to advocate “a practical control of RTI objectives because it cannot be allowed to run riot”.
Other political parties, including the CPI and CPM, also joined the campaign to slam the decision of the CIC.

They say that all of them are already answerable to the Election Commission of India and the Income Tax authorities.

The BJP raised a valid argument that it was practically not possible for a political party to appoint Chief Public Information officer (CPIO) and Public Information Officers (PIOs) in its offices to answer queries under the RTI Act.

Moreover, how would one make a PIO or CPIO of a political party accountable? In case of a government servant, the information panel can impose fine and even order denying the officer promotion for willful disobedience or disregard to the order to disclose information. But similar punitive action in the case of political parties would not be feasible.

The ruling Congress described the verdict as “adventurist approach set to harm the democratic institutions”.

Advocate Tiwari says that the information panel was swayed by the belief that making political parties answerable under the RTI Act would clean up the prevailing corruption.
“In fact, in this case, the perception has played a bigger role than the letter of law,” he says.

Confidentiality the key

Tiwari apprehends that the decision would lead to chaos.With so many disgruntled elements sulking within each political party, one can imagine a scenario of a district-level worker filing RTI application for every decision taken or not taken at the central level and then dragging his own party to the information commission or to High Court and the Supreme Court.

It is high time the CIC’s decision is reviewed judicially to help democracy remain functional at the ground level or the transparency law would become another tool in the hands of busybodies to slow down the establishment, said a political analyst.

At the moment, it is six national parties - Congress, BJP, NCP, CPM, CPI and BSP - that have been directed to come under the RTI Act but regional political outfits cannot remain untouched by the decision for too long.

More blunt is the reaction of CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat, who called the decision “misconceived and wrong”. He feels that it would harm inner-party functioning since deliberations are held within the party on the basis of confidentiality.

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