The Supreme Court asked six national political parties on Tuesday to respond to a plea seeking to bring them under the ambit of the RTI Act, which would allow citizens to access details of their finances and internal processes like how they choose their representatives.
A bench headed by Chief Justice of India HL Dattu issued notices to the BJP, Congress, NCP, CPI, CPI(M) and BSP apart from the Centre and Election Commission, asking them to clarify within six weeks why the political outfits should not be declared as “public authorities” to tag them with the transparency law.
The court passed the order on a public interest litigation (PIL) from the NGO Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) after Central Information Commission said in March it could not penalise parties for failure to implement the transparency watchdog’s directive bringing them within the RTI’s purview.
The top court has delivered several historic judgments over the past two years, ushering in electoral reforms and decriminalisation of politics. Crucial ones include instructions to the Election Commission for framing guidelines to ensure political parties do not promise freebies in their poll manifestos as it vitiates the electoral process.
“Political parties do not have to pay income tax on donations and, moreover, the donations below Rs 20,000 are not to be disclosed under the law by them,” ADR’s counsel Prashant Bhushan said, arguing that these parties also controlled the legislature and lawmaking process.
Political parties have resisted attempts to subject them to the RTI Act that was passed by Parliament in 2005 following a nearly decade-long campaign by activists and is seen as a tool to limit corruption and nepotism rampant in India’s government offices.
Bhushan drew support from a recent report released by the law commission, a top government panel of legal experts, stating political outfits were obliged to disclose their income and expenditure.
“There has to be accountability and transparency in their functioning,” he contended.
The petitioner argued there was a deliberate attempt by political parties to keep the information about their sources of income, donations received and expenses outside the realm of public scrutiny.
The Congress, which was in power when the RTI Act was ratified, said on Tuesday it would be the first party to follow the top court’s instructions.
“We will firm up our opinion after holding elaborate discussions on the issue and will put our viewpoint before the Supreme Court,” chief spokesperson of the party Randeep Singh Surjewala said. “We are of the view that political parties are not within the domain of RTI. However, we will be the first one to adhere to Supreme Court’s directions on the issue.”