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

India Today - - NATION - Kumar An­shu­man

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.”

IN­DIAN EX­PRESS

CHIEF IN­FOR­MA­TION COM­MIS­SIONER SATYANAND MISHRA

YASBANT NEGI/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

VIKRAM SHARMA/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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