BJP Toes Congress Line on Bringing Political Parties Under RTI
BJP government says political parties must not be brought under the RTI. All six national parties agree.
Whether or not political parties should be under the Right to Information Act was once again in the news, following Supreme Court notices to the six national parties to explain their stand. The issue dates back to 2013 when the Central Information Commission made a historic order, which brought the six national parties under RTI. The BJP government, in its counter affidavit in the Supreme Court, said that the political parties cannot be brought under the RTI act.
The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) had filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court against the Government of India and the six national parties that failed to comply with the Central Information Commission order. The petition was admitted by the Supreme Court, which then issued notices to the six National parties as well as to the Government of India. The Government of India has filed a counter affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that the political parties cannot be brought under the RTI act, thus toeing the line taken by the previous UPA government.
The CIC Order
The order cited the following reasons for categorising the political parties as Public Authorities:
- Direct and indirect benefits by the government like subsidised land for party offices, income tax exemptions, free air time on Doordarshan & All India Radio, supplying electoral roll copies free of cost during elections etc.
- Political Parties perform a public function
- Constitutional and statutory status of Political Parties
The political parties on their part said that none of the benefits can be construed as substantial financing, as this is common practice in most democracies.
CIC Not in a Position to Implement Order
The six national parties did not comply with the decision of the CIC to appoint a Public Information Officer (PIO). Meanwhile, the political parties unanimously decided to introduce a bill in the Lok Sabha towards the end of 2013, to amend the RTI act. This amendment would effectively nullify the CIC order and exempt political parties from RTI. After a public outcry, the bill was referred to a department-related standing committee. The bill could not be passed before it’s expiry and has, as a result, lapsed.
The original petitioners moved the CIC again against the non-compliance of its orders by the political parties. The CIC conducted two hearings on the matter in November 2014 and January 2015. The political parties decided not to send any representative to these hearings. The CIC, in a fresh order in March 2015 reiterated its earlier ruling and effectively said that it cannot do more than issue an order and it is not in a position to get it implemented. Following this, the petitioners have approached the Supreme Court.
The Government’s Justification For Exemption From The RTI
The Government of India, in its counter affidavit in the Supreme Court, said that the CIC has interpreted the Sec 2(h) of the RTI act very liberally and that it led to an erroneous conclusion that political parties are public authorities under the RTI act.
The counter affidavit further stated that the RTI act was never meant to bring political parties within the ambit of the act. It went on to say that were political parties under the act, it would hamper the smooth internal working of the parties and that political rivals would file malicious RTI applications, thereby adversely affecting the functioning of the parties.
It also contended that there are already provisions in the Representation of People Act, 1951, as well as the Income Tax act of 1961 that lead to transparency regarding the financial aspects of the political parties.
The counter affidavit then goes on to cite the relevant provisions of these acts in detail. It also mentions the bill introduced in the Lok Sabha to amend the RTI act during the UPA regime that lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.
How it Stands Thus Far
We will have to wait for the Supreme Court’s response. But one thing is clear: all political parties are united on the issue of parties being brought under the RTI act. While there may be genuine concerns about the potential misuse by political opponents, neither the government nor the political parties have come forward with any plan to implement the recommendations of the various Law Commission reports regarding financial transparency of political parties.
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