In a rare show of unity, all political parties have vehemently opposed bringing themselves under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. In a pending petition in the Supreme Court filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms seeking to bring parties under the ambit of the RTI Act, the Central government has filed an affidavit opposing it. The main reasons stated are that scrutiny by the Act would hamper the parties’ smooth functioning, exploited by their rivals and that they are in any case required to disclose their donations under other laws.
The debate on transparency in funding of political parties is not new, but has emerged globally. The UN Convention Against Corruption, which India has ratified, in Article 7 requires governments to consider taking appropriate legislative and administrative steps to enhance transparency in the funding of candidatures for elected public office and the funding of parties. In the US, federal and state campaign finance laws require parties to file detailed periodic reports of all contributions they receive and identify the source of any contribution above a given threshold. The election commission’s website publishes the information. Kenya’s Political Parties Act, 2011, mandates that parties should publish their accounts and complete sources of donations in two newspapers annually and any person would be entitled to inspect a party’s audited accounts. In South Africa, a similar petition is pending in the constitutional court asking for a legislation to be enacted for disclosure of private funding to political parties.
Like South Africa, India is a country that is rife with inequality. Wealthy individuals and corporations are able to influence policy by donating to parties, leaving the door wide open for corruption, conflict of interest and no accountability. Transparency and access to information is the first step towards addressing larger issues such as conflicts of interest and assessing whether a government is in fact acting in the larger public good.
The Representation of People’s Act, 1950, is the only law in India that requires parties to disclose donations above Rs 20,000, but these obligations are woefully inadequate as they are only required to disclose this to the Election Commission and Income Tax Department for obtaining tax exemptions. The disclosures are not made public, there is no monitoring, and no penalties imposed for incomplete or inaccurate reporting. While we may not have a comprehensive law regulating political parties, we do have a robust RTI Act that allows citizens to obtain information from public authorities. The right to information is inextricably linked to the fundamental right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. It is only when citizens have access to information on matters of public importance that they can participate meaningfully in the democratic process.
The current debate centres around whether parties fall within the definition of ‘public authorities’ under the RTI Act. The Central Information Commission in Subhash Chandra Aggarwal and Anr. Vs. INC and Ors. has held that parties were ‘public authorities’ as the tax exemptions, contributions, free air time on government television, land allocations and other concessions they received from the Centre amounted to substantial funding from the government and brought them within the scope of the Act. Like parties, many other non-governmental organisations such as the Indian Olympic Association have also been brought under the RTI Act as they serve a public function as public authorities. The Karnataka High Court, in the context of the RTI Act, has also held that a public authority must be one capable of being exercised for the benefit of the public and relied on the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the RTI Act, which holds that democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information.
On all these counts, a strong case is made out for recognising political parties as public authorities and bringing them under the RTI Act. As we approach the 10th anniversary of the RTI Act, it is time to strengthen it and enhance the citizen’s right to know. If we really want an effective, transparent and accountable government, it needs to begin with full disclosures on political financing and the RTI Act gives us the opportunity to make it happen.
Kothari is a founder member of Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR), Bengaluru. Ravi is a senior researcher at CLPR.