Rare unity has been displayed by parties across the political spectrum in opposing the Central Information Commission’s order making them accountable to the public under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
And this unity appears to have provided the government with an opportunity to water down the transparency law.
The UPA government’s proposal to bring an ordinance to keep political parties out of the purview of the RTI Act has not evoked any reaction from the parties, clearly indicating their silent consent to the move.
On the parties’ apprehension that they would be forced to reveal their internal deliberations if they are brought under the RTI, activist SC Aggarwal said, “The apprehension is baseless.
The definition of information under the RTI Act merely includes the documented material available on record and the concerned public authority has the right to decline any information citing relevant clauses of the law.”
Though various parties have different reasons for opposing the CIC’s June 3 ruling, which held that six major parties – Congress, BJP, CPI(M), CPI, BSP and NCP – were public authorities who should reply to RTI queries, the common underlying theme is that functioning of political parties in a democracy cannot be equated with government and other state-run institutions.
The CPI, the only party to have ever responded to an RTI application so far, held that “the right of privacy and confidentiality of a party’s internal discussions and decisions, which non-party individuals cannot have a right to peep into”.
The diverse parties’ common argument to stay out of the ambit of the RTI law is that they regularly supply information to the chief election commissioner and income tax authorities and those wanting details about their income and expenditure can take them from the Election Commission and I-T authorities.
Most parties, including the BJP and CPI(M), have in their response to the CIC ruling argued that they stand for transparency and accountability in the funding and finances of political parties.
“The CPI(M) was the first party to advocate that even the I-T returns filed by the party can be made public. We strongly advocate that the finances and funding of political parties be made public,” party general secretary Prakash Karat stated in his detailed response on the issue.
This argument, however, failed to convince activists.
“We discovered in 2009 that according to the Income Tax Act, 100% income of parties was exempt from any tax if they provided details of each donation of R20,000 and above to the EC,” said Jagdeep Chhokar of the Association for Democratic Reforms.
“We then went to the EC, seeking copies of the list of donations. We found that such lists only explained 20% income of the parties. Till now, nobody knows what the major source of income of the main political parties is,” he said.