Make parties accountable

The only reference to political parties in the Indian Constitution is in the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution incorporated, which 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 Representation of People Act (RPA), 1951, makes it mandatory for any association or body of individuals calling itself a political party to make an application to the Election Commission of India (ECI) for its registration within 30 days following the date of its formation. The application must be accompanied by a copy of the memorandum or rules and regulations of the association or body, affirming true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India.

As regards accountability related to the reporting on regular functioning, expenditure and income of registered political parties, Section 29C of the RPA compulsorily directs all registered political parties to submit an annual report to the ECI on all contributions in excess of `20,000, without which no political party would be eligible for any tax relief provided under the RPA. The ‘Guidelines and Application Format for Registration of Political Parties’ issued by the ECI under section 29A of the RPA lay down the mandatory requirement to submit audited annual financial statement to the ECI. Section 29A(6) 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.

Information obtained by the Public Interest Foundation (PIF) from the ECI under the RTI Act reveals that till now only 98 of the 1,196 registered political parties have submitted their annual report. Thus compliance is mere 8 per cent. 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 department.

Through another RTI application the PIF sought the information specifically on the compliance of the mandatory guidelines issued by the ECI for submission of annual audited financial statement by all registered political parties within six months of the end of each financial year. As a reply to this RTI application the ECI noted that out of a total of 1,196 registered political parties only 174 have actually submitted the annual audited financial statement for the year 2010-’11, 85 per cent of the registered political parties are not in compliance of the mandatory guidelines.

In the absence any provision for penalising the defaulters, the efficacy of these powers granted to the ECI in regards to accountability and reporting on regular functioning of political parties is seriously compromised. And a routine practice where repeated defaulters go unnoticed and unpunished gives rise to a culture of blatant disobedience amongst political parties. The ECI while exercising its power to register a political party under Section 29A, acts quasi-judicially but once a political party is registered the ECI has no power to review the order registering a party for having violated the provisions of the Constitution or for having breached the undertaking given to the ECI. The only conditions wherein the Commission can de-register a party are when it is found 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 ECI 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 which do not subscribe to secularism, socialism and democracy may be denied registration by the ECI, but they are still not barred from contesting elections.

Aggrieved over these mere symbolic powers, the ECI sent a proposal in July 1998 to enable it to issue orders regulating registration and de-registration of parties. This vital power is yet to be granted by the Union government. In the absence of a law stating what parties can and cannot do, nations risk ruthless politics with little or no public accountability.

The draft ‘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 M N Venkatachaliah, 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 lays down the condition for maintenance and reporting on all accounts and contributions, making it clear 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 and periodic free and fair elections for selecting various office bearers within a political party. It calls for registration with the ECI as a necessary criterion for contesting elections. The ECI is empowered to direct a special audit of the accounts of any year of a party or of any local unit. The draft provides for penalties that can be imposed on parties in case of deviance from the provisions by way of fine of Rs 10,000 per day of non-compliance, imprisonment up to three years, as well as withdrawal of registration. Other significant grounds for de-registration include non-contesting of more than one general elections, not securing a prescribed minimum percentage of votes polled, or not taking part in mainstream political activities.

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) strongly advocate the regulation of all political parties through law.

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, the ECI can deliver this gift to the nation without waiting for major legislative changes in electoral laws.

(This article was published in the New Indian Express on 30th March, 2012)