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Dodging RTI

In line with previous UPA government, the current ruling dispensation on Monday told the apex court that political parties should not be brought under the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The rationale given is two-pronged. One, if political parties are brought under the ambit of RTI, it would hamper their functioning since it is vulnerable to misuse by other rival parties to score political points. Moreover, according to the Centre, political parties are already covered under the Representation of the People Act and Income Tax Act. These laws are more than enough to guarantee transparency regarding the financial conduct of political parties. Second, according to the Centre, “political parties are not established or constituted by or under the Constitution or by any other law made by Parliament. Political parties are constituted by their registration under the RPA and this cannot be construed as akin to establishment of a body or institution by an appropriate government as held by the CIC (Central Information Commission)”. Besides raising the usual of bogey surrounding the “misuse” of the constitutional provision, the Centre has used mere legalese to defend its stand. In its order last year, the CIC clearly stipulated that all six national political parties are public authorities, as they have been substantially financed by the central government. “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 CIC had said in its order. Moreover, according to RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, who moved the apex court for the implementation of the CIC order, “All national and regional political parties must disclose for public scrutiny complete details of their income, expenditure, donations and funding including details of donors making donations to these political parties and their electoral trusts. Great harm is being caused to public interest due to lack of transparency in the political system and the political parties, as the electoral system is generating huge black money and large sums of money are being spent on every election”. Suffice to say, there is more than a grain of truth to his comment.

Over the years, the Right-to-Information Act has emerged as a powerful tool for the Indian public to promote transparency and hold those in power accountable. As per the rules, political parties in India are supposed to file annual income and expenditure statements with the Election Commission. All contributions above Rs 20,000, with the names, addresses and PAN numbers of the donors, have to be submitted to the EC. Analysis by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), however, show that most parties circumvent this rule by attributing large portions of their income to contributions less than Rs 20,000, with PAN numbers, addresses and names often missing.  According to the ADR, 73.5 percent of the BJP’s funds between 2004 and 2011, amounting to Rs 952 crore, came from unknown sources either because the amounts were listed below Rs 20,000 or information about its major donors were incomplete. The Congress, however, led the way with Rs 1,951 crore. The influence of party funding on government policy, as the Indian public has witnessed time and again, is apparent. Greater transparency is, therefore, the need of the hour, since it is the common man who has entrusted the government to spend his/her hard-earned taxpayer money. 
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