The recent decision of the Central Information Commission (CIC) to bring political parties within the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act is a welcome step. And there’s nothing surprising in the way the political parties have reacted to it. After all, no one in a position of power wants to be transparent. It’s almost a human tendency. In this case, the political class clearly does not know what the RTI is. In fact, a common user of the RTI knows it better than them. The negative reactions of the political class stem from the typical mindset of “why should I?”
Three key questions must in turn be asked of the political parties. Firstly, are they not financed by government funds? If they are not, the CIC’s judgment is flawed. But if they are, then they must come under the RTI. The RTI Act clearly says any non-government organisation that is substantially financed by government funds is a public authority — and that includes political parties. In this judgment, the bench has clearly cited instances of the massive tax exemptions they get, the huge subsidies on the government land allotted to them and so on.
Secondly, are they not receiving funds in crores? Isn’t that substantial? They cannot refute that it is and so they are public authorities as defined by law. If they still object, they must explain why they should not be subject to RTI.
Thirdly, do the political parties believe transparency will do them good? If they don’t, then we must ask them what harm it would do.
If you are a public authority, you come under the RTI. but the Act also provides exemptions to protect you from disclosure of certain types of information. based on these exemptions, various public authorities have now functioned for over seven years without any major damage to the institutions.
The parties ask, how can people dictate how they choose candidates. The answer is, they cannot. The information that parties do not have on record, is not information and hence does not have to be provided. but citizens have the right to ask if there is a process and what are the criteria laid down. beyond that, this law doesn’t in any way allow the citizen to “dictate” any terms. besides, the humble Indian citizen cannot dictate to the powerful, but can hope to speak the truth to power, and make them truthful.
Parties also argue that they are already monitored by the Election commission. come election time, they go and beg for votes. Are they saying they don’t want ordinary citizens to monitor them? That they are not answerable to individual citizens, and find the idea abhorrent? Let them answer that and we will know where we stand. Some political parties even declared themselves as private organisations. Do they really think they are businesses?
I think the political parties don’t really know where they might get hit. The CWG scam got exposed because of RTI. It’s an unknown animal, and so political parties believe it’s best to avoid it. Some of their illegal acts, their arbitrariness, may come out, hence the fear.
If you become transparent, you become better. Transparency is a tool for self-improvement and in the long-term interest of the political parties. Today, we have a trust deficit that may lessen if they become transparent. Tomorrow, if the BJP says they will do it, the congress will also fall in line, provided there is a national clamour.
If they choose to take the CIC order to court, it will be unfortunate and cause an indefinite delay, in case the court stays the order. One of the respondents, the Association for Democratic reforms, a civil society group, has already filed a caveat in the Delhi High Court, asking to be heard before any political party gets a stay against the CIC order.
The rhetoric on news channels has been mostly along the lines of “shouldn’t the citizens know?” That’s a side comment, but not a valid legal argument. An organisation doesn’t become a public authority on the grounds that “a citizen must know”. we have a strong case as the parties are substantially funded by the government, and are therefore public authorities as defined in the RTI Act.
As a believer in transparency, I think a ‘No RTI, No Vote’ campaign is a great idea. If we can build up a nationwide clamour for it, there is some hope that this order will be effectively implemented. That will be an extremely important step for democracy.
(As told to Shonali Ghosal)