Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s decision to introduce electoral bonds through this year’s budget, as a move to help weed out black money, has once again put the spotlight on transparency in political funding.
While, over the past week, Parliament and the media have extensively debated the efficacy and implications of the proposed electoral bonds, both have conveniently glossed over a key concern: Do voters have a right to know about the finances of political parties? Or how does the world’s largest democracy empower its voters with information that they ought to have on the vote seekers?
In 2013, the Central Information Commission (CIC) ruled that political parties are “public authorities” as defined in the Right to Information (RTI) Act and are, therefore, liable to information that the public might seek from them. This quasi-judicial order was hailed by as a victory for RTI activists, who saw it as an important step toward bringing transparency in political funding and strengthening the nation’s democratic fabric. Four years on, however, political parties have refused to comply with the CIC order and the government has told the Supreme Court – where a petition on this subject is being heard – that political parties should be kept out of the purview of the RTI.
The resistance on the part of the political parties, or the stand taken by the government, is not entirely unjustifiable. To begin with, the CIC equated a political party with a “public authority” because the former performs public duties, enjoys constitutional and legal rights and receives substantial government funding. The RTI Act, however, provides for only one of these three conditions to deem a non-government organisation as a public authority – “substantially financed, directly or indirectly, by funds provided by the appropriate government”. Also, neither the Act nor the CIC ruling offers any measurement of what qualifies as “substantially financed”. Hence, the CIC’s argument for bringing political parties under the RTI Act becomes legally untenable, unless the law is amended to make way for a wider definition of public authorities.
Political parties also have a genuine concern when they say they might not have the resources to cater to RTI queries, which will likely flood them if they were to accept the CIC ruling. It is also not clear what is the nature of information the public can seek if parties are brought under the RTI purview. Unless there is clarity, the provision is more likely to be misused by political parties against each other and trigger a political war that does no good to democracy.
Notwithstanding all that, the political class must reckon with the growing distrust and disillusionment among voters over lack of accountability and transparency in the actions of what they perceive as public institutions. Political parties may not be bound by constitutional obligations, but, as one analyst commented, they are “important instrumentalities that enable democratic participation in the governance process.”
Voters do have a right to know how the political parties are financed and governed. Many democracies in the world have found a way to empower their voters with that right. While some have taken the RTI route, others have brought laws to ensure that political organisations make adequate disclosures to the public. India would do well to learn from their experiences. Whether through amendments to the RTI Act, or through other laws applicable to organisations engaged in public activities, it is time the government and the political parties stopped stonewalling on the issue and found a resolution that has been long overdue.
Rajesh Mahapatra is chief content officer, Hindustan Times.
He tweets @RajeshMahapatra