Economic & Political Weekly

The Central Information Commission (CIC) ruling that all political parties are public authorities under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and that those currently designated as national parties should not only appoint mandatory information authorities but also disclose information under relevant sections of the Act within six weeks is a landmark decision. It has, not surprisingly, visibly shaken some political parties. It has also divided public opinion about its implications. The practical difficulties of implementing the order notwithstanding, studies on party democracy, regulation and finance inform us that there is considerable merit in the spirit of the ruling.

The general atmosphere which probably encouraged the CIC intervention may have been, as has been correctly observed, a result of a pervasive climate of distrust of political parties in general and politicians specifically. Yet, this widespread trust deficit is not something specific to India but is shared with most other democracies where large proportions of the citizenry find political parties more corrupt as compared to other institutions. Consequently, the demands for greater and constant public scrutiny of politicians and political parties have been steadily rising.

The new institutional literature in political science informs us that regulation can be used to manoeuvre political parties to successfully serve societal needs and public interest. Most recently, the European Union (EU) was involved in a long-drawn-out discussion on regulating the functioning of European political parties. In this connection, the Giannakou report of the European parliament not only covered funding aspects but also examined issues relating to internal party democracy.

In the academic literature, the calls for greater transparency, accountability and consequently regulation and scrutiny of political parties have been advanced primarily on three grounds. The first could be called the public good argument. From a distinctively anti-party tradition, there has been a complete reversal in the discourse in party studies. E E Schattschneider’s much-cited assertion that “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of political parties” is emblematic of the central position of parties in representative democracies today. Parties are, in this public good perspective, seen as necessary and vital institutions in a democracy which not only link citizens to the government but also provide them an important space to express their opinions and interests.

This argument is amply evident in the CIC order in numerous places where it recognises the critical role of parties and their remarkable impact on the lives of citizens. The ruling echoes Schattschneider when it says, “no political party, no democracy” and then goes on to place high expectations on political parties. In its understanding, parties are not only the “building blocks of a constitutional democracy” but the “lifeblood of our polity”. Furthermore, the CIC also earnestly holds that parties are “engaged in performing a public duty”. Implicitly, the CIC believes it is this public good or duty that allows parties to receive public funding. The order, drawing from various judicial pronouncements, argues that government funding, albeit indirectly in the form of subsidised land and building, income tax exemptions, free airtime on All India Radio and Doordarshan during elections and so on, supposedly helps achieve a “felt need of a section of the public or to secure larger societal goals”. Consequently, it is the same public good that expects political parties to exercise greater transparency in their functioning.

The equality and fairness argument is the second reason often advanced in favour of greater regulation of political parties. The literature notes that regulation of party functioning will allow for greater transparency which not only ensures fair competition between different parties but also helps maintain a level playing field.

The third reason is that openness in political parties increases the confidence and trust of the people in public institutions, and consequently strengthens democracy and reinforces the legitimacy of the system. At the same time it is held that regulation also checks misuse/abuse of power and helps maintain the integrity of the democratic process.

The concerns that the provisions of the RTI Act could be used unfairly by rivals and that providing information may take up substantial resources in terms of staff and time need to be addressed. The “substantive public interest” criterion could be used to open up specific areas and sectors to greater public scrutiny. This could include finances, membership registers and the constitution, and rules and regulations. It should be made mandatory for political parties to provide requisite information in these three areas in an intelligible form on a regular basis. The Election Commission could become the repository of this data, freeing parties from any so-called unfair use of the RTI.

The answers to questions as to what political parties are, what they are expected to do, and how they are managed have not only varied from society to society and also from time to time but there have also been different voices within a society. There are clearly no objective answers. Every system needs to evolve according to its own requirements and build rules and regulations which would define the role and contribution of political parties. The spirit of the CIC ruling is only a gentle nudge towards possibly renewing our democratic commitment and cleansing its fabric. Even if this order is not agreeable in its present form, the idea of greater public accountability of the financing and functioning of political parties is one whose time has come.

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