The ruling Congress party, which regards the Right to Information (RTI) Act as one of its most significant achievements, has fiercely objected to the gaze of the law being turned on itself.
Bringing political parties under the RTI Act, in line with a ruling by the Central Information Commission (CIC) on Monday, will hurt democracy, said Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi.
“It is not acceptable. We totally disagree with it. Such adventurist approach will create a lot of harm and damage to democratic institutions,” he told reporters in New Delhi on Tuesday.
The Congress wasn’t alone in opposing the scrutiny of the RTI Act. Similar sentiments were expressed by other parties as well.
Meanwhile, the petitioners in the CIC case and activists welcomed the decision and said they had filed a caveat in the Delhi high court asking that they be informed about any challenge to the ruling.
“A caveat is filed in the Delhi high court that if any appeal is made against the decision with the Delhi high court, then we should be informed about it first and allowed to give our representation,” Jagdeep Chhokar , founding member of New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), one of the petitioners in the case, told reporters on Tuesday.
The RTI Act became law in 2005 as the culmination of a right to information movement in a country where public information was notoriously hard to come by. In the years since then, it has played a role in uncovering various scandals, many of which have come to haunt the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.
Among the political parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), also objected to the CIC ruling.
Finance minister P. Chidambaram cast doubt on the tenability of the ruling.
“I have not read the full text of the order (but) it’s a rather unusual interpretation of the provisions of the RTI Act,” he told reporters at a cabinet briefing. He added that the reasons used to describe political parties as public authorities “strains credibility”.
“I do not think that the intention of the RTI Bill was to apply to political parties,” Chidambaram said.
Political parties may merely restrict themselves to bluster in public and avoid going to court, as that would imply they have something to hide, said Abhay Kumar Dubey, a political analyst and fellow at New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
“If any political party goes to court against the decision, it would clearly mean that it has something to hide and that it wants to create a situation where other parties can also hide information,” he said. “However, I think they would restrict themselves to making critical statements because going to the courts would be a clear indicator of them being scared of putting their details in the public domain.”
Salman Khurshid, external affairs minister and member of the Congress, suggested that the RTI Act should be subject to limits.
“There is a logic of RTI and this is reflected in its orders. The logic will be tested at various levels, including by the courts. I think we should be overtly sensitive to the evolving nature of RTI, but at the same time I think it is important to keep a practical control of RTI objectives because it cannot be allowed to run riot,” he said.
The CIC decision on Monday related to six national parties mentioned in the petition—the ruling Congress party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the CPM, the Communist Party of India and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
Although the JD(U) doesn’t figure in the list, it was harsh about the decision.
“I fail to understand the logic behind the CIC order. There is already a constitutional body—the Election Commission (EC)—to which every political party is answerable,” said Sharad Yadav, JD(U) chief. “Does the CIC order now mean that political parties will have two bosses—the EC and the CIC?” he said, adding that political parties are “not shops”.
The CPM said in a release that political opponents may use the law to destabilize a party. “This decision is based on a fundamental misconception about the role of political parties in a parliamentary democracy,” it said.
The parties can challenge the CIC decision in a high court or the Supreme Court.
Activists said they are in the process of seeking the extension of the ruling to regional parties.
“Right now, this is applicable only to national parties, but we are trying that this should be extended to regional parties as well. The process for it has already started,” said Anil Bairwal of ADR.
Subhash Chandra Agrawal, a veteran RTI activist and another complainant in the case, welcomed the CIC ruling.
“It is a landmark judgement and will have far-reaching implications. It will increase transparency in political parties, which, in turn, may help in curbing things like scams and corruption cases,” he said.
The petitions had arisen because of the lack of information on party finances. A report by ADR said none of the national parties furnished any information on their websites on moveable and immoveable property, of direct or indirect state funding, contributors or donors, balance sheets, funds, income-tax returns and budgetary allocations.
None of the six political parties have provided details regarding the monthly remuneration received by members and office-bearers on their websites.
Speculation arose a day after the ruling whether the CIC decision would hold up in court.
Section 18 of the RTI Act says that CIC and its state counterparts “have the same powers as are vested in a civil court while trying a suit under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908”, including those in the cases of issuing summons, receiving cases on affidavit and requisitioning any public record or copies thereof from any court or office.
The RTI Act of 2005 states that anybody, authority or an institution of self-government can be declared a public authority if it is established through the Constitution, laws made by Parliament or state legislatures or by notification by an “appropriate government”.
CIC interpreted the term appropriate government as the Election Commission of India, whose registration is needed for a political party to be recognized as such.
One of the petitioners said the decision would hold up in court.
“There is zero chance that it is not legally tenable. There are high court and Supreme Court orders quoted in the case. One does not necessarily have to be a government body to be under the RTI Act,” said Chhokar of ADR.
CIC cited a 2010 Delhi high court order, which said that New Delhi-based Sanskriti School, which is not a government body, is a public authority and comes under the ambit of RTI. The argument by the court then was that the school had received government funding.
“Section 19 of the RTI Act says that the decision of the CIC is binding. In effect, there can be no appeal against it. It can only be challenged through a writ petition,” a CIC official said while requesting anonymity.
“If the matter at all goes to the court, then it is for the courts to decide. It is a little early to pre-empt what the court would say,” the official added.
PTI contributed to this story.