Pandora’s Box

Politics under RTI spells chaos

The Central Information Commission’s ruling bringing political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Those hailing it claim that it would set a new benchmark for transparency in governance. The critics, however, feel that it has opened a pandora’s box.
If the political parties are made to open up to the queries under the RTI Act, then, they say, it would expose each and every organisation, including those from the private sector and industries to the same regime. There would be no ground left to keep them aside.
Interestingly, the Freedom of Information Law of the US, Sweden and other European countries does not cover political parties.

Out of 89 countries having transparency law governing political parties, India would now be the third one after Poland and Nepal.
The apex information panel under the transparency law held that since the parties are allotted land and bungalows at cheaper and concessional rates, enjoy tax benefits on donations, they could be described as public authorities falling under the purview the RTI Act.

The free air time given to them on AIR and Doordarshan for campaign at the time of elections was said to have contributed to substantial financing of the political parties by the central government.
The main reliance of the CIC’s decision was Section 2 (h) (ii) of the RTI Act as it concluded that the political parties were substantially financed by the government. So, they need to be answerable to the queries under the RTI Act.

It goes without saying that the other provisions like Section 2 (a), (b), (c) and (d) could not be applied to political parties. But here also, the full bench of the CIC disagreed.
It said: “If not strictly within the letter of this particular provision (d), but at least, in spirit, these political parties can be said to have been constituted by their registration by the Election Commission of India, a fact akin to the establishment or constitution of a body or institution by an appropriate government.”
Advocate Amit Anand Tiwari, who argued at length on behalf of the NCP before the CIC, counters the reasoning by saying, “recognition” given to the political parties by the EC cannot be called “creation under the statute”.

“Parliament, the Supreme Court and the High Courts, various tribunals have been created (established) by the Constitution. But, political parties are voluntary organisations which merely get recognition from the EC,” he points out.

By CIC’s logic, a corporate body created under the Companies Act would also come under the RTI Act.No doubt, the purpose of RTI Act is to bring transparency and accountability in the functioning of those entities which affect citizens’ lives.

But, if one takes the argument of substantial financing or tax relief granted to political parties as one of the reasons for dragging them under the RTI, then by the same logic private industries should also be covered under it, as they too enjoy tax exemption under various schemes such as special economic zones (SEZs).

The industrial units also get so many other benefits. For example, they are allocated plots at subsidised rates after having been established under the provisions of a particular law.
The CIC, however, unsuccessfully tried to demolish the logic by claiming that the political parties enjoy “almost unfettered exemption” from payment of Income Tax. In case of any other charitable or non-profit, non-government organisation, the benefit is conditional, it averred.

The panel has gone to the ludicrous extent of pointing out that the political parties are given free electoral rolls, which could also be construed as substantial financing.

Source: DH

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