New Delhi

Nearly two years ago, in a landmark judgment, the Central Information Commission ordered the six national political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, to be brought under the ambit of the Right to Information Act. The CIC concluded that they were public authorities and thus were required to be transparent, ordering the parties to start responding to RTI requests. There was just one problem with the CIC order: none of the parties was paying attention to it.

On Monday, having spent the intervening two years sending notices to the parties and attempting to get them to become a part of the process, the CIC threw its hands up and said there was nothing it could do. The BJP, the Congress and the four other parties ordered to become public authorities have simply ignored the CIC altogether and refused to even participate in the process. Short of naming and shaming them and asking the petitioners to go to other courts, the CIC said in its order that there is now nothing it can do.

"The Commission is not geared to handling situations such as the present instance where the respondents have disengaged from the process. The Commission, having declared the respondents to be public authorities, is unable to get them to function so," the CIC said in its order. "This unusual case of wilful non-compliance highlights the need to identify the legal gaps and lacunae in the implementation mechanism. An obvious conclusion is that in cases such as this, the Commission is bereft of the tools to get its orders complied with."

The case had been brought to the CIC by the Association for Democratic Reforms and RTI activist Subhash Agarwal. Based on their petitions, the body had decided that since the national parties, including the Nationalist Congress Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in addition to the BJP and the Congress, had been given substantial indirect subsidies by the state, they came under the definition of public authorities. This would mean that the RTI would apply to them.

Adventurist approach

The parties didn't react well to this order. The Congress called it an "adventurist approach" that will "create a lot of harm and damage to democratic institutions." The BJP, after originally welcoming the CIC's order, said implementing it would hamper the "smooth internal working" of political parties. The others made similar noises.

Ever since that order in 2013, however, the commission has tried, unsuccessfully to get them involved in the process. Although a few wrote letters to the body saying it did not have the jurisdiction to pass such an order and that they weren't public authorities, none of them appealed the decision in higher courts.

But they also didn't appoint public information officers, and the ambit of the CIC only gives it power over these officers, rather than the bodies themselves. Essentially the body said that it has no way of intervening in the matter unless the parties themselves willingly choose to get involved.

Gaps in the law

"There are in the law, gaps that need to be addressed e.g. in the context of action against the public authority for non-compliance with the Commission's directions," the order said. "It is reasonable to argue that if there is persistent non-compliance, apart from the CPIO, there must be some assignment of responsibility at the level of the public authority."

As a result, the commission has done only what it sees as legal: attempted to name and shame and encouraged the petitioners to attack the issue via other approaches. It noted that its orders haven't been complied with and then sent a copy of the order to the Department of Personnel and Training to address the legal gaps. But for now, however, our political parties remain as opaque as ever.

Jagdeep Chhokar, founder of ADR which filed the petition, said that the CIC's decision effectively means it is abdicating its own authority. "It is very sad and almost ironic that a statutory authority says they can do nothing," Chhokar said. "It is tragic that the statutory authority meant to implement the law says it cannot implement it. They have abdicated their authority and rendered the act irrelevant."

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