New Delhi: The Central Information Commission (CIC) said on Monday that India’s political parties are public authorities and answerable to citizens under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, in a significant ruling that could sharply increase the scrutiny on them.
The order is with respect specifically to six national parties since they were the ones mentioned in the petition before the commission—the ruling Congress party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, the Communist Party of India, and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The ruling means that these parties, if queried, will now have to disclose sources of funding as well as details of expenditure.
The commission, a quasi-judicial body with the powers of a civil court, based its ruling on parties being substantially funded indirectly by the Union government and having the character of public authorities under the RTI Act as they perform public functions.
The judgement, which comes at a time when political leaders across the spectrum are being named in scams and corruption cases, in effect means they would be liable to maintain records for public scrutiny and provide information when sought under the RTI Act.
While activists and experts welcomed the decision, they said the political parties may not let it go uncontested.
“In principle and in the interest of transparency, it is important that political parties come under RTI. It would call for more transparency in an opaque political system where the masses know only what is put out to them,” said Zoya Hasan, a political analyst and professor at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Political parties will certainly object to it.”
“All political parties should come under the decision and not those six political parties alone,” Hasan added.
The decision by a three-member CIC bench, including chief information commissioner Satyananda Mishra, was in response to two different appeals filed by RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal and Anil Bairwal of the New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms.
“Political parties affect the lives of citizens, directly or indirectly, in every conceivable way and are continuously engaged in performing public duty. It is, therefore, important that they became accountable to the public,” CIC said in its decision. “It would be odd to argue that transparency is good for all state organs, but not so good for political parties, which, in reality, control all the vital organs of the state.”
The grounds on which CIC has concluded that parties receive funding from the government includes the land and development office of the ministry of urban development having “alloted large tracts of land” in Delhi either free or at concessional rates to them, getting total exemption under section 13A of the Income-Tax Act for all their income and getting free air time on All India Radio and Doordarshan during elections.
CIC, in the decision, also noted that apart from the NCP and the CPM, the other four parties “simply ignored” a letter by the commission last November seeking details of land and buildings allotment.
It said the political parties “in spirit” can be said to be established or constituted by their registration with the Election Commission of India. CIC equated the Election Commission in this case to be “appropriate government”, thus allowing the political parties to be public authorities.
CIC has directed the political parties to designate central public information officers in six weeks’ time and has asked the presidents and general secretaries of the parties to comply with the provisions under the Act and make voluntary disclosures in subjects pertaining in it.
“It is a very important decision, but what remains to be seen is...how proactively do they (the parties) actually do it,” said Nikhil Dey, an RTI activist and member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.
Dey hoped the political parties wouldn’t fight the decision.
All the parties can file a writ petition either in a high court or in the Supreme Court to challenge CIC’s decision and get a stay on the order.
The parties avoided giving detailed responses on the decision.
“If CIC has already put out a ruling, what more can we say to it,” Shakeel Ahmed, a Congress spokesperson, told reporters on Monday.
“We haven’t seen the decision and we will respond to it after reading it,” BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi said.
One of the arguments made by the political parties during the case was that “political rivals would maliciously flood” them with RTI applications. To this, CIC noted in the decision: “In our view, the validity of a statute cannot be questioned only on the basis of presumption of its possible misuse. On the contrary, we are of the opinion that bringing the political parties in the ambit of RTI Act is likely to usher an era of transparency in their functioning.”