NOT A PARTY TO TRANSPARENCY
Political parties seethe in unison and seek to protect their turf as the Central Information Commission brings them under the Right to Information Act radar
Right to Information ( RTI) activist Subhash C. Agarwal recalls he could sense an excited buzz on the second floor of August Kranti Bhavan, office of Central Information Commission ( CIC) in New Delhi, when he had walked in there on June 3 to hear one of his listed petitions. No one told him what was up. “I have been going there often, but it was so different that day,” he says.
A couple of hours after he walked out of the office, an official rang up to tell him CIC had inked a judgment bringing political parties under the RTI Act, 2005. Agarwal was one of the petitioners who moved CIC on the issue in 2011. Around the same time, his co- petitioner Anil Bairwal, national coordinator of the Association for Democratic Reforms ( ADR), was ignoring the persistent calls on his mobile phone while remaining closeted in a meeting at his office in Delhi’s Qutab Institutional Area. Bairwal too had no clue that the verdict would be out that day until a colleague interrupted to show him a text message.
The verdict was largely hinged to the burgeoning kitties of the parties, which are exempt from paying income tax under Section 13 A of the Income Tax Act, 1961. The income tax exemption granted to Congress was Rs 300.92 crore. The figures for other parties were: Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP) Rs 141.25 crore, Bahujan Samaj Party ( BSP) Rs 39.84 crore, CPI( M) Rs 18.13 crore and the Nationalist Congress Party ( NCP) Rs 9.64 crore, between 2006 and 2009.
The full bench of Chief Information Commissioner Satyanand Mishra and Information Commissioners Annapurna Dixit and M. L. Sharma had held that six national parties— the Congress, BJP, NCP, CPI( M), CPI and BSP— enjoyed substantial indirect funding by the Government, which gave them the character of a public authority under the RTI Act as they perform public functions. It said the parties were answerable to the citizens about their source of funding, how they spend the
money and their choice of candidates for elections, among other things. CIC also asked the political parties to appoint public information officers within six weeks to respond to RTI queries and follow all the legal provisions.
Among the first to disagree was Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. “The reasons given to describe political parties as public authorities under the RTI Act do not appear to be credible. When the RTI Act was enacted, it was not supposed to apply on political parties,” he said.
Janardan Dwivedi, Congress general secretary, said, “Such an adventurist approach will damage democratic institutions.”
CPI( M), while insisting it was for public accountability, has suggested that the Government should initiate an all- party push to preserve the integrity and the role of political parties in a democratic political system.
But RTI has its supporters. Wajahat Habibullah, former chief information commissioner, says that it will give political parties a window for being transparent before the public.
Agarwal agrees. He adds, “Ethics and morals demand that political parties criticising the verdict should immediately and voluntary surrender land and bungalows provided by the government to them at highly subsidised rates and lease.”
The genesis of the case goes back to October 29, 2010, when Bairwal and Agarwal filed an RTI query asking for details of the funding, poll manifestos, selection of candidates and other key issues concerning the six national parties. All parties, except BJP which kept mum, responded saying that they were not public authorities and do not come under the purview of RTI.
CIC heard the complaint on September 26, 2012, and November 1, 2012. The judgment was categorical: “In view of the nature of public func-
tions performed by political parties, we conclude that political parties in question are public authorities under Section 2( h) of the RTI Act.”
The verdict was buttressed by three major arguments in the complaint. It said the income tax exemptions the parties enjoyed was a case of indirect financing by the Government. Another was allotment of government land and property to political parties. Prime properties had been rented to political parties for their offices at paltry rates— plots with a market value of Rs 2,677.78 crore were rented to parties to set up offices for five years at a mere Rs 66.53 crore. “This, in our considered opinion, amounts to indirect financing and when added to the income tax exemptions, it would amount to substantial financing,” observed the bench.
A third factor that weighed on the verdict was free airtime that the parties enjoyed on Doordarshan and All India Radio during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. This cost Rs 24.28 crore of government money. The Government, besides, had also spent Rs 9.15 crore on providing free electoral rolls to these six national parties during the 2009 General Elections.
“Only about 20 per cent of the income of political parties comes from donations that they disclose to the EC,” says Bairwal. The parties are not required to mention the source of donations that are less than Rs 20,000. This allows many parties get away claiming that the money came from people chipping in with membership fee and small donations.
The parties can challenge CIC in court. But Bairwal is getting set to file a caveat in the Delhi High Court asking he be heard before a judgment is passed if anyone approaches it on this issue.“We are confident the judgment will stand every scrutiny,” he says.
No party so far has made the first attempt to get the CIC order reversed. But as a a senior Congressman puts it, “Even if the high court approves the CIC verdict, an amendment can be brought in Parliament, which all parties will support.”
CHIEF INFORMATION COMMISSIONER SATYANAND MISHRA