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Political parties cannot escape RTI

Political parties cannot escape RTI
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Political parties say that people have no right to seek any information from them. But the Central Information Commission has held that all political...

Political parties say that people have no right to seek any information from them. But the Central Information Commission has held that all political parties are public authorities and are thus under duty to inform the people as per Right to Information Act 2005. The claim of Subhash Chandra Agarwal to this extent was accepted by the CIC. It is a constitutionally right decision. There are several legal points to support this conclusion.

Though the Constitution in 1950 nowhere mentioned "political parties", they hold constitutional status and wield constitutional powers under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution which extend to a) disqualify legislators from Parliament and State Assemblies; b) bind legislators in their speeches and voting inside the house; c) decide what laws are made; d) decide whether Government remains in power or which Government should come to power; e) decide public policies that affect lives of millions of people.

Senior Advocate Prashanth Bhushan has rightly argued that the Tenth Schedule vests tremendous powers with political parties. They can oust an elected member � whether MP or MLA � from the party if he steps out of the party line. Therefore, if purposive interpretation of the Tenth Schedule is made, political parties can be deemed to be covered under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act which defines what public authority that makes RTI applicable is.

As per Article 102 (2) of the Constitution, a person can be disqualified from being a member of either House of Parliament under the Tenth Schedule, and a similar provision exists for the State legislators under Article 191(2) of the Constitution. Furthermore, as per Article 102(2), if a member of a House belonging to a political party votes or abstains from voting in the House contrary to the directions issued by the party, he is liable to be disqualified from being a Member of the House.

Another significant legislation that deals with political parties is the Representation of People Act, 1951, which gave statutory status to them under Section 29A of that Act. Under this Section, political parties are required to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution. They give tickets to candidates and people vote on party symbols and, thus, the political parties are important instrumentalities of democratic governance.

As per Section 29C of the Representation of People Act, 1951, all donations of and above Rs. 20,000/- made to political parties are required to be reported to the Income Tax Department. This obligation points towards their public character. They are substantially financed by the 'appropriate Government' in multiple ways and are exempt from Income Tax.

The RTI Act says any non-governmental organization substantially funded by the Government will be a public authority. Almost all political parties have got very valuable plots allotted by the Government at prime places in New Delhi and in their respective capital cities. The value of this accommodation and place in New Delhi is worked out to be Rs.2556 crore.

Tax exemptions given to these parties are worth several hundreds of crores of rupees. From 2006 to 2009, the value of these exemptions was: BJP Rs 141.25 crore, Congress 300.92, BSP, 39.84, CPIM 18.13, CPI 0.24, and NCP was given tax exemptions worth Rs. 9.64 crore. These political parties were also given a slot in AIR for their publicity which is calculated to be of Rs 28.56 crore and for the time in Doordarshan were valued at Rs.10.75 crore.

The Election Commission is an instrumentality of the State. Allotment of election symbols by it is suggestive of their public character. Section 80 GGB of the Income Tax Act provides that contribution made by an individual or company to a political party is deductible from the total income of the assessee. This provision is exclusively applicable to the parties and is suggestive of indirect financing of them by the State.

The Law Commission, in its 170th Report on "Reform of Electoral Laws (1999)" said: "�it must be said that if democracy and accountability constitute the core of our constitutional system, the same concepts must also apply to and bind political parties which are integral to parliamentary democracy. It is the political parties that form the Government, man the Parliament and run the governance of the country. It is, therefore, necessary to introduce internal democracy, financial transparency and accountability in their working. A political party which does not respect democratic principles in its internal working cannot be expected to respect those principles in the governance of the country. It cannot be dictatorship internally and democratic in its functioning outside".

The CIC, in 2007, explained the significance of the transparency of political parties: "�It would be facetious to argue that transparency is good for all State organs, but not so good for the political parties which control the most important of those organs. For example, it will be a fallacy to hold that transparency is good for bureaucracy but not good enough for the political parties which control those bureaucracies through political executives".

Unfortunately, the respondent political parties have denied that they are public authorities and refused to furnish information under the RTI Act. The AICC and the BJP have asserted before CIC that they are not public authorities. The CPI (M) has disclosed some information to the Commission regarding allotment of land by the Central Government but has not conceded that it is a public authority under the RTI Act.

Interestingly, the CPI office-bearers have taken a contradictory stand; while A.B. Bardhan has agreed that the CPI is a public authority, Sudhakar Reddy has taken the stand that political parties do not fall in the ambit of Section 2(h).

The allotment of large tracts of land in prime areas of Delhi either free of cost or at concessional rates, allotment of houses on rental basis on concessional rates, exemption from Income Tax u/s 13-A of the I.T. Act, free air time on All India Radio, free air time on Doordarshan and provisioning of free electoral rolls, etc, will amount to substantial funding by the State and brings political parties into the ambit of public authorities. The CIC finally and rightly held that the INC, the BJP, the CPI (M), the CP (M), the NCP and the BSP have been substantially financed by the Central Government under Section 2(h) (ii) of the RTI Act.

It is reported that political parties are appealing to the Delhi High Court challenging this order. They may even take it to the Supreme Court. They have no moral, legal or constitutional right to deny the information to the people whose votes they seek to come to power. If they deny information to people they cannot claim to be public servants.

The writer is Professor & Head, Center for Media Law & Public Policy, NALSAR University, Hyderabad.

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