New Delhi

Amazing that almost all parties should nix the decision of the Central Information Commission to bring them under the ambit of the RTI law. Far more amazing that the cadre-based parties should echo the same objections the family-owned political firms have in opposing the public spotlight being put on their finances. The point is not whether the CIC has stretched the law to declare political parties as public authorities under the RTI Act. It may well have. But the point is that the six parties named by the transparency commission have vociferously protested being dubbed public authorities. Of course, eventually the ruling may be extended to cover all registered political parties.

Is CIC’s order bringing political parties under purview of RTI dangerous?

Frankly, it is hard to imagine a more public institution than a political party. The more public it is, the greater its chances of success. Given that even family-controlled corporate entities have to necessarily open their books of accounts to the public, and submit them for closer examination by the I-T Department, political parties, by their very nature, are most public of institutions. Or ought to be. Taking shelter behind a narrow reading of the RTI Law to evade examination of their fiancés only confirms the general view that a good part of the political donations invariably finds its way into private pockets.

For, if the truth be told, most parties still rely on huge black money donations by a handful of moneybags. In turn, big donors extract their pound of flesh through discretionary allotments of natural resources and permits and licenses. The bigger the donor, the more his influence over the political process. From gettingLok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, Assembly nominations for their loyalists and factotums, to making them Ministers, contributors of sackfuls of illegal money distort the entire political process. Most political parties remain hostage to big money.

Political parties to come under RTI Act, rules CIC




Political donations below Rs 20,000 in cash are permissible. Therefore, most parties use the convenient stratagem of listing hundreds of crores of rupees received in cash from big business as small contributions by party cadres and supporters. And deposit the same in their bank accounts. The I-T Department takes a benign view of this palpable falsehood knowing as it does that every party, more so the ruling party, resorts to such creative accounting to turn black into white.

Remarkably, even after corporate donations were made legit a few years ago, industrialists, real estate tycoons and other businessmen still prefer to fund political parties in cash. According to reliable estimates, more than four-fifths of political donations to major parties is still in hard cash. When delivered to politicians, a good chunk is kept aside by them for private use, while the remainder is deposited in the party’s bank accounts and accounted for as collections from small donations.

A few years ago, BSP boss Mayawati had got around a case of disproportionate assets by arguing that she had received tens of crores in small donations of ten, twenty, fifty, hundred, crores etc. over nearly a four-year period, from her followers who were impressed with her pro-Dalit campaign. Someone at the time had calculated that she ought to have received over Rs 3.5 lakh per day without a break, Sundays and other holidays included, in small donations over nearly a four-year period to justify the extent of assets she had amassed in her own name as the solo controller of BSP.

More recently, the Delhi High Court upheld her appeal against an Income Tax order rejecting her explanation that a property in West Delhi valued at nearly Rs 8 crore was gifted to her by its owners, a middle-class Jain family, as a token of their love and affection for her. The Jain couple was not particularly wealthy. The wife worked at the time as an office assistant for Rs 6,000 a month while her husband too earned thereabouts in his business. Yet, the Delhi High Court deemed it lawful to accept Mayawati’s plea that as a champion of Dalits, the donors were so taken up with her that they transferred their house gratis to her.

PMO violates RTI Act, snubs applicant refuses to give information

Mayawati’s might be a more blatant case of a politician misusing her position to amass billions for herself and her extended family. But generally political donations are opaque. And there is no accounting how these are spent. It was said of Sitaram Ram Kesri, the long-time treasurer of the Congress Party, na khata na bahi, jo Sitaram Kesri kahey who hi sahi. (No accounts, no books; whatever Kesri says is true.) How Kesri was humiliated and hounded out of the Congress President’s office is another story. To be fair to the poor man, he died a pauper, though a number of his colleagues in the party had enriched themselves enormously misusing political funds.

Despite the Election Commission cap on expenditure by candidates in State and central elections, political parties spend huge sums without accounting. It is no one’s case that they ought to explain how they take policy and personnel decisions, how they constitute their organisational structures. No. Those who have reacted angrily to the CIC decision, calling it ‘adventurist’ and which ‘may cause a lot of damage to the democratic process’ are deliberately trying to obfuscate the issue. For nobody is asking them how they nominated a particular person for contesting this or that election. Or how they decided to support or oppose a particular policy. No. The limited objective of the CIC is to make political funding and its use transparent. If parties do not divert funds for private ends, if politicians do not steal them to amass personal fortunes, they should welcome the CIC ruling, and not oppose it.

Admittedly, various authorities expand their reach only when things go out of hand. The CIC might have allowed a broader definition of public authority under the RTI Act only because there was a general consensus that politicians pocketed party funds for private use. Just as a few decades ago the apex court virtually omitted the role of the executive in the appointment of judges to the High Courts and the Supreme Court once the executive went overboard in making poor appointments. A former Law Minister virtually forced the creation of the collegium system for judicial appointments when partisan considerations of caste and political bias determined higher judicial appointments.

Of course, the rare unanimity among political parties against the CIC order opening their accounts to public scrutiny would ensure that someone will challenge it in the High Court. It is hoped that the courts too would not be unmindful of the rot that has struck deep into the polity where the difference between political and private funds has virtually become non-existent, especially in the family-owned parties. Desperate situations call for desperate measures. Therefore, political finances must be open to public accounting. Period.

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