New Delhi: Political parties could seek legal recourse to try and prevent the implementation of the Central Information Commission (CIC) order that requires them to make public their income-tax returns under the Right to Information Act which will, for the first time, bring their sources of funding under public scrutiny.
In anticipation of this, activist group the Association of Democratic Reforms, or ADR, which had filed the petition that resulted in CIC’s order, has filed a caveat, in both the Delhi high court and the Supreme Court, whereby it would be granted a hearing in case the order is stayed.
The commission, in its order of 29 April, which was reported in The Economic Times of 30 April, had directed that the details on tax returns by the political parties be furnished to ADR within six weeks.
A CIC officer, who did not wish to be identified said that political parties could move the courts to get a stay on the order, just as a few stock exchanges such as the National Stock Exchange and a few public utilities have done.
“The laws of the land do not make it mandatory for political parties to disclose sources of their funding and even less so the manner of expending those funds,” CIC noted in its ruling. “In the absence of such laws, the only way a citizen can gain access to the details of funding of political parties is through I-T (income tax) returns filed annually with I-T authorities.”
The order also listed objections raised to this move by most political parties, including the Congress, the dominant constituent of the ruling United Progressive Alliance government, and its main rival the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), mainly on the grounds of infringement of privacy.
“An I-T return is not a confidential document. It is a statutory and public document,” said senior advocate P.P. Rao.
Veerappa Moily, chairman of the Congress party’s media cell, however, said: “I don’t think the Congress party has an issue with furnishing details, since we are already filing returns.”
Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP, a Rajya Sabha member, said he had not studied the order. “There is already a mechanism created by the Election Commission. So the parties are already subject to scrutiny.”
The Election Commission of India (EC), an independent electoral authority, requires that political parties submit their annual accounts to it.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, was among the few parties that did not raise an objection and maintained that funding of political parties must be made transparent. “Only the Left parties can claim that they do not receive any black (unaccounted) money. That is why we have no objections to making the details public. EC does seek some details, but not on a round-the-year basis. We need more transparency as there is no way to even measure the amount spent by some parties in elections,” said Mohammad Salim, deputy leader of the CPM in the Lok Sabha.
Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan said CIC’s order was on firm legal ground. “As a public authority, a political party must make disclosures such as IT returns in public interest,” Bhushan said, arguing that though a political party is not a company under the Companies Act, 1956, it is a public authority.
Referring to an earlier judgement of the Supreme Court that asked candidates to disclose details of their assests and liabilities before elections, Rao said that it is every voter’s right. “Funds of political parties come from the public and the public has a right to know even details of the I-T returns of political parties.”
According to Jagdish Choker, one of the founding members of ADR, financial transparency of political parties is of utmost importance since they are public entities.
However, no authoritative estimates of their expenditure, particularly during elections, is available. “Section 77(1) of the Representation of the People Act states that any expenditure by a candidate’s political party, friends and relatives will not be considered as a part of his election expenditure. Hence, the expenditure most candidates submit to EC is just a fraction of the real amount. What we plan to do with the current disclosure order is to get a statement of what political parties have received and spent in one year. We shall then compare it with the income and expenditure of each candidate and check if the election expenditure exceeds the income of the candidate, the political party or both put together,” he says.
Ashish Sharma and Malathi Nayak contributed to this story.