The Indian Express

Bringing political parties under RTI is a bad, and anti-political, idea

In a radical ruling, the chief information commissioner has decided that political parties should be open to scrutiny under the right to information. Six national parties have been asked to appoint officers to handle requests, and proactively share information about their finances and voluntary contributions, including donor information. The logic is that parties get public land and offices, they get airtime on AIR and Doordarshan, as well as tax exemptions, and are therefore obliged to disclose their internal workings. While the idea is certain to go down well with many who consider parties as inevitably and intrinsically corrupt and corrupting, beholden to powerful special interests, and in urgent need of technical fixes or moral correctives, it is also deeply unwise.

Of course, there is a valid concern that party financing is a black box. That parties only spend the money prescribed by the Election Commission may also be a polite fiction. There are almost certainly vast amounts of unaccounted money available to candidates and parties, and this is a major fount of money-laundering and corruption. Campaign finance is a vexed issue around the world. But the solution to that problem does not lie in RTI disclosures or oversight by a state commission. It lies in tightening tax compliance. Making political parties subject to RTI is to hand information commissioners and civil servants a powerful instrument of control over politicians. Given the intense rivalry that marks our politics, RTI may also be used to embarrass other parties and settle scores, rather than to advance the public interest.

Political parties, let us not forget, are more accountable and responsive to voters than any other institution. This move to impose "accountability" through RTI is not only open to manipulation, it also fundamentally misunderstands the place of parties in a democracy, their right to association, to choose their own tactics to mobilise voters and to be discreet about their strategies. While "high command culture" or being remote-controlled by a distant organisation may seem like distorting forces to some, it is up to the party to abide by or reject them. If they are intolerable to voters, they will make their preference clear. The role of a political party is to crystallise and shape political interests, to compete aggressively, and balance causes. The public interest lies in letting the antagonistic contest between parties thrive. This move by the CIC, regrettably, is another attempt to coast on the anti-political wave, and should be rejected by a court with better sense.

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