The RTI Juggernaut

The unanimity of India’s political class to promulgate Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013 to categorically exclude registered or recognised political party under the Representation of People Act (RPA), 1951, from being considered “public authority” under the Right to Information Act, 2005 has raised scepticism on the potential for depreciatory intent at guarding the clandestine activities of political parties. The move to counter the pronouncement of the Central Information Commission (CIC) to list political parties, which include AICC/INC, BJP, CPI(M), NCP and BSP, as public authorities under Section 2 (h) of the RTI, 2005 was perceived as a respite to scathing criticisms encountered by political parties.

Explaining the reasons for introducing the amendment bill, the statement in the bill points to the already existing provisions in the RPA, 1951 and Income-tax Act, 1961 as effective in dealing with the financial transparency of political parties. But implementation of these provisions has been a grave challenge to the Election Commission of India (ECI). Section 29C of the RPA, 1951, compulsorily directs all registered political parties to submit an annual report to the ECI on all contributions in excess of Rs 20,000, without which no political party is eligible for any tax relief provided to political parties under the RPA. The second important provision in the same context is 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 Article VIII of Rule 3(i) and under Rule 3(xix), lays down clearly a mandatory requirement for all political parties to submit their audited annual financial statements to the ECI.  In response to RTI applications by the Public Interest Foundation (PIF), the ECI has informed that only 8% of 1196 registered political parties have submitted annual reports in 2010-11 regarding contributions above twenty thousand rupees  to the Election Commission. The Commission also revealed that that out of a total of 1196 registered political parties only 174 have actually submitted an annual audited financial statement for year 2010-11.  The efficiency of these provisions are explicitly questioned by the response of the ECI dated 20 November 2013 to an RTI application filed by Public Interest foundation on further actions undertaken by the ECI against registered political parties who failed to submit the annual audited account of the fund after issuing of letter by the ECI on 14 July 2011. The Commission responded that, “since nowhere under the Representation of the People Act, 1951 or the Conduct of Election Rules (ensuring compliance of which come under the purview of the Commission) the political parties are mandated to submit their annual audited accounts, Commission is not in a position to take any action against the parties who have not submitted their annual audited report”.

The reasoning of amendment bill asserts that political parties are neither established nor constituted under the Constitution or by any law made by Parliament. This point of objection does not gain credit against the provisions under fifty second amendment to the Constitution which amended Articles 101, 102, 190 and 191 of the Constitution regarding vacation of seats and disqualification from membership of Parliament and state legislatures and added a new Tenth Schedule to the Constitution setting out certain provisions as to disqualification on grounds of defection. The political parties were vested with exceptional power to remove those elected representatives elected by the people of India. Although not created by the Constitution, but wielding of this unique authority in itself suffices the need to regulate political parties by the common citizens who have been rightfully bestowed with the Constitution of India.

Reaffirming this thought is the recommendation of the Law Commission of India in its 170th that it is necessary “to introduce internal democracy, financial transparency and accountability in the working of the political parties”. The report of the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution headed by Mr. Justice MN Venkatachaliah, Former Chief Justice of India made significant remarks on the need for legislations to encompass political parties in transparency and accountability. The report states, “There is a need for a comprehensive legislation (may be named Political Parties (Regulation) Act) regulating the functioning of political parties in India”. The amendment bill tabled before the Rajya Sabha has clearly not considered any of the recommendations proposed by the Commissions formed by the governments in the past.

The visible outrage prompted the government to refer the amendment bill to the Standing Committee on 5 September 2013 granting hope for restoration of sanity in our polity. The defence of the political parties that deserve serious consideration is regarding dangers of unrestricted disclosure possibly impeding their internal administration and strategic deliberations. The discussions and decisions of a political party on participation in the electoral process along with their political schemes could be exempted by suitably amending Section 4 of the RTI Act, 2005. Nevertheless, there is an absolute necessity for transparency in the finances and accounts of the political parties. Absence of any law for regulating finances of political parties poses a great threat to functioning of democratic institutions in India which are deeply entwined with one another. An active disclosure of their financial details would unquestionably enable an objective audit from the informed citizenry.

By Nripendra Misra, Director, PIF & Annapoorna Karthika, Research Associate, PIF.