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RTI: Best bet for political parties

RTI: Best bet for  political parties
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Why should bringing of political parties under the ambit of RTI Act cause a rage? How come every one concerned except political parties describe the...

Why should bringing of political parties under the ambit of RTI Act cause a rage? How come every one concerned except political parties describe the CIC's order as landmark? It is unfortunate that the Centre is considering an ordinance to bail out political parties from the RTI. This is nothing short of depriving democracy of its credentials. But, thanks to increased activism of civil society, political parties can no longer escape from the transparency wave sweeping the country. In 2005, when the RTI Act came into force, most bureaucrats too had similar apprehensions as political parties now have. But, five years later when the Service Guarantee Act was adopted by State after State, no such reservations were there. Now it is three years since Service Guarantee has been in force in a couple of States. Then also I had said what I say now about the CIC's order bringing political parties under the RTI Act: Political parties too stand to benefit.
The CIC order meant that political parties are answerable to citizens of the country. Are they not expected even otherwise? But now from mid-July 2013 parties would be under constant scrutiny about their funds, sources as well as expenditure and goings-on.
Even those contributing to political parties could be on public radar without even their knowledge and consent. Party functionaries would be required to give information on their decisions and be conscious of having to explain to a larger public sooner or later. Political leaders would be under constant critical appraisal, much more from within than outside. Information seekers could be of an opposing party or opponents from within. In a Parliamentary democracy and competitive politics, who does not like to gear up better for the future and consolidate? This is what adapting to and availing of the RTI provisions amounts to. This opportunity is not possible for political parties any other way. As it is, it is mandatory for political parties to file their income tax returns (although exempted from paying such a tax) and also to the Election Commission (EC). Their accounts are expected to be audited by a registered chartered accountant. That apart, the contesting candidates, irrespective of the poll outcome, have to file affidavits on poll expenditure to the EC within a specified period. And, candidates are obligated to file affidavit as to their assets, finances and give details of criminal background. Registered parties are even expected to file with EC the way the functionaries are chosen (as per the constitution of the party). As such, there is no justification for knee-jerk reactions to the CIC order. This order, however, implies that parties respond directly to citizens irrespective of the motives and who they are. That is why the sooner the political parties get to adapt to RTI, the more credible they could become. To that extent our democracy will be robust and responsive. Has the declaration of finances and criminal background by contesting candidates in the case of Assembly and Lok Sabha made any difference? Most States had at least two elections since such a declaration was made an obligation. Voters were expected to choose the candidate based on such information. And parties are expected to select the ones with no or least criminal background. And yet the percentage of those with criminal background in the Lok Sabha, for example, has not declined. Assets and finances of many have increased unusually between elections, going by their own declaration at the time of filing nominations. With RTI in force, scope for "conflict of interest" in political donations could perhaps be exposed and minimized. Ultimately, it is the voters who could make the difference. With parties under RTI, the much expected change in the functioning of people's representatives could come faster. RTI now offers a way out for political parties stuck in a chakra vyuh like situation. They are otherwise not able to get out of a vicious syndrome. RTI provides them with an opportunity and even a methodology to be transparent, confident, competitive and more credible. Initially, there would be various queries for information and almost in a deluge. But that is something parties need to get used to. A provision in the RTI Act is Section 4 with suo moto clause under which parties could put out information on vital decisions and operations in public domain. For example, Prime Minister's office last week had put out on its website what Dr. Singh's foreign trips had cost the government over the years. It hardly made news. But if the same information had been obtained by way of a specific question under RTI, that information would have made headlines; 65 foreign trips had cost the government around Rs 645 crores last decade. That is PMO apparently gearing up to the challenges of RTI. If parties put out what their finances are and their sources, most suspense will be over. Lok Satta did that in AP, and AAP is doing that now in Delhi. Some of the recent scams would not have hogged headlines had the concerned leaders bared the facts in a suo moto way. However, there is one area that could be a concern to political leaders. That is to do with poll strategies which parties tend to evolve to score over adversaries. Leaders do not like opponents to know such competitive information. But this is only a short-term problem. Given the kind of competing news media we have and political parties themselves owning news media, they are already at that game of snooping tactical information. In the last couple of national polls, parties have coped with such a reality, including bringing to book "quid-pro transactions". So, the apprehensions about coming under RTI could only be short-lived, but the benefits in the long run would be all round and to all stakeholders. The advantages that need to accrue first from any such new initiative are the informed voter and parliamentary democracy. Ultimately, it is the citizen who has to be enabled to do better as a voter. If that is the only yardstick to go by, then we need to see that political parties stand the litmus test by coming under RTI. The CIC's order should be welcomed and adopted fast. Considering the far-reaching implications of RTI regime for consolidating the democratic practices, we should not look at CIC order in legal terms. The issue is not so much whether our political parties should be considered as "public authorities" or not. If a political party does not take any benefits from the Government but is active in electoral politics of the country, is that going to be exempted from RTI? A more important issue is: Should they come out of a chakra vyouh syndrome and function responsively? RTI has immense potential to help everyone in a win-win way, particularly political parties. In a spirit of "checks and balances", parties need to gear up, adopt and move into better systems and practices. It would even be graceful if political parties were to come together and welcome the opportunity, and indicate their anxiety to move on to the next level of our parliamentary democracy. They could also come to an understanding and reflect their determination to put information on a suo moto basis, including about source of their funds and on wherever conflict of interest potential exist. They could even come up with certain proposals for consideration of the CIC for exemptions. For example, access to files or minutes of party meetings or giving information beyond a five-year time reference. And giving information pertaining to specifics about regional units of national parties. They could even appeal to citizens not to seek information which is already put in public domain and not to expect replies individually as they are not geared up to respond to every applicant. Transparency Review of CMS had observed more than once in the last couple of years certain restraint on the part of the UPA Government in pushing RTI. In fact, the November 2012 issue of Transparency Review featured "Twists and Turns of Government on RTI" the way it took to RTI movement in a restrained way: "Efforts to scuttle the very Act and dilute its implementation have continued in so many different ways". For example, they could have initiated discussion for bringing in news media under RTI regime. Reasons are more than that news media too gets government privileges in many different ways. News media should deliberately be brought under RTI Act. Transparency should be seen as part of public culture, a movement for good governance and in an inclusive way. RTI should not be seen merely as a tool against corruption. It could also help free and fair elections, representative functioning of legislatures and a more responsive administration. That is why the CIC's order needs to be seen much beyond a legal scope. The issue is not whether political parties are public authorities or not but how well they could play their role and how even better they could function to take the country much beyond the present level of free and fairness of polls and pride of place in the comity of nations. (The writer is Editor of Transparency Review. He has been analyzing implementation of the RTI Act from its inception. E. nbrao@cmsindia.org)
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