Political Party Reforms: Bedrock for the Way Ahead on Electoral Reforms

Filed under Electoral Reforms

Political party reforms are critical and need to be addressed on an urgent basis in the content of electoral reforms. The only reference to political parties in the Indian Constitution is mainly in the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution incorporated by the Constitution (52nd Amendment) Act, 1985.  It deals with the disqualification of a person for being a member of either House of Parliament or the Legislative Assembly/Council on grounds of defection.  The major onus of framing and administering the rules and regulations governing political parties comes within the juridical purview of the Election Commission of India (ECI).  It is the ECI which has the ultimate power to register or deny registration to any association or body of individuals as a political party; and to accord recognition and status of political parties to “the association or body of citizens of India”.

Article 29A (1) and (2) of the Representation of People Act (RPA), 1951 makes it mandatory for any association or body of individuals of India calling itself a political party to make an application to the ECI for its registration as a political party, within thirty days following the date of its formation. Article 29A (5) requires that the application shall be accompanied by a copy of the memorandum or rules and regulations of the association or body, wherein the association or body shall affirm true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India. Further sub-section (7) of section 29A provides the required stringency to the above provision by stating that no association or body shall be registered as a political party under this section unless the memorandum or rules and regulations of such association or body conform to these provisions, i.e. the provisions of sub-section (5) of section 29A.  The decision of the Commission in this matter is final.

As regards accountability related to the reporting on regular functioning, expenditure and income of registered political parties there are certain specific provisions already present that empower the ECI which need to be highlighted. First is the section 29C of the RPA that compulsorily directs all registered political parties to submit an annual report to the ECI on all contributions in excess of rupees twenty thousand, without which no political party would be eligible for any tax relief provided to political parties under the RPA.  Second important provision in the same context is the ‘Guidelines and Application Format for Registration of Political Parties under section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951,’ issued by the ECI which under the Article VIII of rule 3(i) and under the rule 3(xix) lays down clearly the mandatory requirement for all political parties to submit its audited annual financial statement to the ECI. Thirdly, comes the most significant section, sub-section (6) of section 29A of the RPA which provides that the ECI may call for such other particulars as it deem fit from the association or the body making the application for registration as political parties.

Public Interest Foundation (PIF), a NGO, sought information under RTI Act to better appreciate the status of compliance of various mandatory provisions under the jurisdiction of ECI.  On the compliance status under section 29(c) of the RPA regarding submission of an annual report to the ECI of all contributions in excess of Rs. 20,000/-, PIF received a reply from the ECI that till now only 98 registered political parties out of a total of 1196 registered political parties have submitted their annual report regarding contributions above Rs. 20,000/-.  Thus compliance is mere 8%. Further the ECI has not recommended for any action to the Income Tax Department against the defaulting political parties and only the copies of the contribution report received from the political parties have been referred to Income Tax Department.  Perhaps, the ECI could have also educated the general public in this regard so as to enable them in making informed choice while casting their vote during elections.

Through another RTI application PIF sought the information specifically on the compliance of the mandatory guidelines issued by ECI under the Article VIII of rule 3(i) and rule 3(xix) of the ‘Guidelines and Application Format for Registration of Political Parties under section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951’ which calls for the mandatory requirement of submission of Annual Audited Financial Statement by all registered political parties within 6 months of the end of each financial year. As a reply to this RTI application ECI made the shocking revelation that out of a total of 1196 registered political parties only 174 have actually submitted the Annual Audited Financial Statement for the year 2010-2011, 85% of the registered political parties are not in compliance of the mandatory guidelines.

The efficacy of these powers granted to the ECI in regards to accountability and reporting on regular functioning, expenditure and income is seriously compromised in the absence of any provision for penalizing the defaulters.  And a routine practice where repeated defaulters go unnoticed and unpunished gives rise to a culture of blatant disobedience amongst registered political parties. The ECI while exercising its power to register a political party under section 29-A of the Act, acts quasi-judicially but once a political party is registered the ECI has no power to review the order registering a political party for having violated the provisions of the Constitution or for having breached the undertaking given to the ECI at the time of registration. The only conditions wherein the Commission can de-register a party are when it is found later that a party has obtained its registration through fraudulent means, or it was declared by the Government as unlawful, or when a party itself intimated the Commission that it had ceased to function or had changed its party constitution, or would not function in accordance with the provisions of the law. Moreover, the sanctity of the provision is all the more diluted by the fact that the parties who do not subscribe to secularism, socialism and democracy may be denied registration by the ECI, but they are still not barred from contesting elections.

Thus, rightly aggrieved over these mere symbolic powers, ECI sent a proposal in July, 1998 to enable it to issue orders regulating registration and de-registration of political parties.  This very vital power to ECI is yet to be granted by the Union Government.

If governments have no laws stating what parties can and cannot do, nations risk ruthless politics with little or no public accountability.   One does not have to invent a new wheel.  There is the draft Bill called the ‘Political Parties (Registration and Regulation of Affairs, etc.) Act, 2011’ prepared by Centre for Standards in Public Life (CSPL) under the esteemed guidance of former Chief Justice of India Shri M.N. Venkatachaliah. This draft bill attempts to address a wide spectrum of issues ranging from formation of political parties, to registration, governance, accountability, regulation of political parties, functions of the parties and their discipline. It compulsorily lays down the condition for maintenance and reporting on all accounts and contributions above rupees twenty thousand of the political party, clearly noting down that compliance with the provisions of the Act and the declaration submitted by it at the time of registration would be a legal binding on all political parties on a continual basis. Strict norms have been put together for the observance of internal democracy like no nominations and periodic free and fair elections for selecting various office bearers within a political party. Addressing the existing discrepancy where even unregistered parties can contest elections, this draft bill calls for registration with ECI as a necessary criterion for contesting elections. Moreover, the registrar through this draft bill is empowered to direct a special audit of the accounts of any year of a party or of any local unit. The draft bill strongly talks about penalties to be doled out to political parties in case of deviance from the provisions laid down by this bill, in the way of fine of Rs. 10,000/- per day of non-compliance, imprisonment upto three years, as well as withdrawal of registration. Other significant grounds for de-registration of political parties by the registrar according to this draft bill, is the non-contesting of more than one general elections, or not securing a prescribed minimum percentage of votes polled, or not taking part in mainstream political activities.

Amongst high level government reports on the same issue, there is the Law Commission’s 170th Report on Electoral Reforms (1999), the National Commission for the Review of the Working of the Constitution report on electoral reforms (2002) and the ECI’s recommendation on electoral reforms (2004). These reports though strongly advocate for the regulation of all political parties through law, but recommend the inclusion of this law as a part of the already existing RPA, rather than enacting a entirely exclusive act for the regulation of political parties in India.

Law Commission in its 170th Report on Electoral Reforms had suggested for the inclusion of a completely new Part – IIA, titled ‘Organization of Political Parties and matters incidental thereto’ to be introduced in the Representation of the People Act of 1951. This new Part-IIA, comprising of Section 11A to 11I provides for the internal democracy of the political parties; the complete adherence of the aims & objectives or goals & ideals of the political parties with that of the Constitution of India; its registration with the ECI without which no political party would be permitted to contest elections; general organization of the political parties; maintenance of regular accounts of the political parties of the amounts received by the party, its income, and expenditure, have them audited and submit the same to the ECI. This Part-IIA also details out the punishment to be met out to the political parties in case of non-compliance of these sections in the form of penalty of Rs. 10,000 for each day of continued non-compliance after notice, as well as withdrawal of registration of the said political party.  Additionally, this report from the Law commission emphasizes the insertion of another new Section 78A to the RPA, whereby it provides for stringent punishment for the political parties in case of non-compliance with the maintenance and the disclosure norms regarding the clear and full annual account of the receipt and expenditure incurred by the political parties.

The minimum that citizens can be promised is the provision  that seeks to regulate the regular functioning of political parties in terms of maintenance of accounts and contributions along with a clause for legal punitive action in case of non-compliance.   Moreover, there should be a mandatory requirement for the appropriate authority to generate public information regarding defaults of  political parties on  binding disclosures so that the truthful public image of the political party may be constructed in the minds of the common citizenry. Perhaps, ECI can deliver this gift to the nation without waiting for major legislative changes in electoral laws

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