New Delhi

On October 29th, 2010, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) filed an RTI application to obtain information about the funding received by six national political parties – Indian National Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Bahujan Samaj Party and Nationalist Congress Party. Barring the CPI, none of these parties presented the information that was requested. Now, almost five years later, they may not have the option to refuse.

Image credit: wikimedia commons
Image credit: wikimedia commons

When it was initially denied the information because the parties claimed they did not come under the RTI Act, ADR filed a complaint with the Central Information Commission (CIC), demanding an explanation for the same. Consequently, a full bench of the CIC delivered a landmark judgment stating that political parties were ‘public authorities’ and would have to appoint Central Public Information Officers to cater to any enquiry filed under the RTI.

However, since the CIC failed to fully enforce its judgment, the Supreme Court recently accepted a petition to include national political parties under the Right to Information Act and asked the Centre, the Election Commission and the six political parties why they failed to comply to the initial request. With this the SC has taken a major step towards ensuring transparency, accountability and good governance in a matter that has been repeatedly questioned but never truly revealed – Where do political parties get their funding from and how is it put to use?

These political parties, as advocate Prashant Bhushan alleged, are virtually funded by the government. They receive income tax exemptions on donations, as well as receive funding from ‘miscellaneous sources’, which they are not legally required to disclose if under Rs. 20,000. They also receive land, accommodation, free airtime on public broadcasting and other amenities that make them answerable to the government as well as citizens.

Funding received by political parties can be instrumental in how the party is run. Organizations or individuals with vested interest may use ‘donations’ as a way of skewing both public opinion and government policy in their favor. Not only does this have the potential to breed corruption at the most fundamental level of politics, but can also distorts the flow of power from all citizens to a select few who can ‘afford’ it.

Therefore, the action taken by the Supreme Court may go a long way in safeguarding democracy. When political parties claim to be working for public good, they should see themselves under the banner of ‘public authorities’. The Right to Information refers to the right of every citizen to access information held by or under the control of public authorities. All activity taken up in the public domain should be made known to the public in whose name the activity is taken up. Full disclosure of funding received by these parties would give credibility to their actions and warrant thorough investigation in case of any misdemeanors.

The Right to Information Act is not however, without its own faults. These include too many Public Information Officers making the process tiresome, lack of infrastructure, deferred responses due to unregulated offices and bureaucratic hurdle, misusing national security and the Official Secrets’ Act to deny information, poor maintenance of records and an ambiguous definition of ‘public authorities’. Therefore, the SC’s initiative to check political parties will have to come second to properly implementing the RTI act. To avoid any evasion by political parties and ensure good governance, RTI procedures will first need to be straightened out.

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