The Times of India
New Delhi

For the record: We are doing this to bolster political parties

The order provides a good opportunity to strengthen electoral democracy. The key to elections is political parties and as someone said, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Management guru, lawyer and citizen-activistJagdeep Chhokar is one of the founders of theAssociation of Democratic Reforms (ADR), the NGO whose RTI application brought national political parties under the ambit of the transparency act. He tells Himanshi Dhawanthat the move will bring transparency in electoral democracy 

How will this order impact electoral democracy? 

The order provides a good opportunity to strengthen electoral democracy. The key to elections is political parties and as someone said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. This order is like the sunlight which will bring the internal functioning of political parties into public domain. Whether this opportunity will be used or whether it will translate into an ugly and unnecessary tussle remains to be seen. 

The government and the Congress party have said that the order is "overstretching" the limit of the law. What is your response to such criticism? 

I'd like to say that the people criticizing the order have read neither the Central Information Commission order nor the RTI Act. The RTI Act makes the CIC the appropriate authority for implementing the Act. That Act was exercised through a full bench to come to this determination. Whether it is credible or not under the law must be decided by the courts. Of the six national parties, whichever goes to court, will make it amply clear that they are not willing to be transparent. 

Some sections of the govt have suggested amending the Act... 

Ever since the RTI act was introduced eight years ago, every threefour months there is a move to amend the Act, often on the pretext of strengthening it or making it easier to implement. The move has been resisted every time. This time the obvious objective is to weaken it and make it inapplicable to political parties. There is an obvious and perverse conflict of interest here. 

The amendments, if made, will be challenged in court and this will not be the first time. We had filed a public interest litigation in 1999 that had resulted in the Supreme Court asking political parties to declare contestants with criminal antecedents before an election. Political parties got together and amended the Representation of People's Act so they would not have to give out this information but the amendment was struck down by the Supreme Court. I think there will betremendous opposition to amending the RTI Act because there is a groundswell of public opinion against this. One hopes that political parties that pay attention to little else will pay attention to public opinion. 

But you haven't left anything to chance. A day after the CIC order, ADR filed a caveat in the Delhi High Court. How will that help? 

We have filed a caveat which means that if any party files a writ petition asking for a stay, we will be given a chance to be heard. An ex-parte stay will not be given. 

Except for the CPI no political party has welcomed the order. Did you expect such an adverse response? 

No political party has welcomed the decision. The CPI too has made contradicting statements. We anticipated that political parties will not like it. There were enough indications in the way the parties responded in the two hearings held by CIC. But I am saddened and surprised by the intensity of the response. It is being made out as if the political system will be destroyed if this order is implemented. We are doing this to strengthen the political parties. There has been a long held view that it is in the interest of political leadership to keep quiet about the internal working of the party. The rank and file would like transparency. Being designated a public authority is not a disease. Thousands of public authorities are surviving and some have even improved. 

There has also been criticism that the CIC itself has used the principle of "substantial funding'' by the government unevenly. An example is how Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and the BCCI have not been found to be public authorities. What is your response to this? 

There are high court and SC orders that clearly say that the quantitative test for deciding significant support of public funding is not accurate, instead the nature of support given to the public authority must be considered. For instance, a party like the NCP has said that it receives only 1.4% of funding (by way of sops, land allotment and income tax exemptions) from the government. But we don't know whether this is 1.4% of Rs 100 crore or Rs 2 crore. For a common man who is paying 30% of his salary as income tax, that is substantial support. 

How will you ensure that this order is implemented? 

A myth is being spread that parties which were accountable to the Election Commission are now answerable to the CIC. The order only makes public authorities accountable to citizens not To the CIC itself. If there is a second boss being created, it is the citizens. And citizens will seek information. This will require perseverance and persistence because the information may not be given.

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