Setting a new bench mark in transparency in politics, the Central Information Commission today held political parties are answerable under the Right to Information Act.
A Full Bench of the Commission comprising Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra and Information Commissioner M L Sharma and Annapurna Dixit held six parties--Congress, BJP, CPI-M, CPI, NCP and BSP--to whom RTI queries were directed, fulfill the criteria of being public authorities under the Right to Information Act.
"The Presidents, General Secretaries of these parties are hereby directed to designate CPIOs and Appellate Authorities at their headquarters in six weeks. The CPIOs so appointed will respond to the RTI applications extracted in this order in four weeks time," the Bench directed.
The Bench also directed them to comply with the provisions of mandatory proactive disclosures clauses given under the RTI Act and put those details on their websites.
The case relates to RTI queries from activist Subhash Agrawal and Anil Bairwal of Assosication of Democratic Reforms who had sought to know the finances of, voluntary financial contributions received by these six parties and the names and addresses of the donors besides other details which were refused as the political parties claimed they do not come under the RTI Act.
During the hearing, Bairwal raised three principal points justifying his arguments that parties were under the RTI Act--indirect substantial financing by the central government, performance of public duty and Constitutional and legal provisions vesting them with rights and liabilities.
"Large tracts of land in prime areas of Delhi have been placed at the disposal of the political parties in question at exceptionally low rates. Besides, huge government accomodations have been placed at the disposal of political parties at hugely cheap rates thereby bestowing financial benefits on them," it said. More PTI ABS
The Bench held the income tax exemptions granted to the parties and free air time given by All India Radio and Doordarshan at the time of elections also substantially contribute to indirect financing from the government.
"We have no hesitation in concluding that INC/AICC, BJP, CPI-M, CPI, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the central government and therefore they are held to be public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act," the Bench ordered.
On the performing of public duty point raised by Bairwal, the CIC held that political parties "affect the lives of the citizens, directly or indirectly in every conceivable way and are continuously engaged in performing public duty. It is, therefore, important that they become accountable to public."
"Political parties are the unique institution of the modern constitutional State. These are essentially political institution and are non-governmental. The uniqueness lies in the fact that inspite of being non-governmental, they come to weild or directly and indirectly influence exercise of governmental power.
"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 Bench held.
Citing a Supreme Court order where it held that people of India must know the source of expenditure incurred by political parties during elections, the CIC said these judicial pronouncements unmistakably command progressively higher level of transparency in the functioning of political parties in general and their funding altogether.
"In view of the nature of public functions performed by political parties...we conclude that political parties in question are public authorities under section 2(h) of the RTI Act," the Bench held.
On the third point of Constitutional provisions vesting political Parties with rights and liabilities, the CIC said political parties come into existence only after registering with the Election Commission which awards symbols under given legal provisions.
"ECI is vested with the superintendence, direction and control of elections under Article 324 of the Constitution.
ECI is also vested with the authorities to suspend or withdraw recognition of a political party in certain contingencies," the CIC said.
It said political parties can recommend disqualification of members of the House in certain contingencies under the Tenth Schedule.
"The contention is that the aforesaid constitution/statutory powers of political parties bring them in the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act. We find the above submission quite compelling and unerringly pointing towards their character as public authority," it said.
During the hearings which were spread over last eight months, all the six political parties opposed the contentions of RTI applicants--Bairwal and Agrawal.
"We hold that INC, BJP, CPIM, CPI, NCP and BSP have been been substantially financed by the central government under section 2(h)(ii) of the RTI Act", it said.