Making political parties accountable
Polity & Governance
15th Oct, 2019
Recently, the Supreme Court held that non-governmental organisations which were substantially financed by the appropriate government fall within the ambit of ‘public authority’. Owing to the reasoning given by the court, the judgment can potentially have wide ramifications in the discourse pertaining to the ambit of the RTI regime on national political parties.
- The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a non-governmental organization, had asked for details of finances, donations and donors from several political parties using the RTI route.
Meaning of Public authority
Under section 2(h) of the RTI Act, public authority means any authority or body or institution of self-government which is substantially financed directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government.
- In 2013- The full bench of the Central Information Commission (CIC) ruled that six national political parties of India - Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Nationalist Congress Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party will be deemed to be public authorities.
- This CIC verdict put these parties in the ambit of Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.
- In 2013, The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill was introduced in Parliament to keep political parties explicitly outside the purview of RTI that lapsed after the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.
Why is RTI crucial for political accountability?
- Information is an antidote to corruption; it limits abuse of discretion, protects civil liberties, encourages people’s participation and brings awareness of laws and policies. This is how RTI brings individual and institutional accountability to our administrative machinery.
- The RTI Act mandates timely response to a request for information from a public authority.
- Political parties represent citizens of the country at various levels of the government. They voice people’s demands and needs in the administrative sphere and therefore serve as the link between citizens and the government. Thus bringing political patties within RTI ambit will help make transparent system.
- Political parties funding patterns are unknown to the public and it necessitates bring them under RTI.
- It will promote internal democracy in the pary.
Why political parties need to be urgently brought under the RTI?
- Tax exemptions for political parties: Political parties are exempted from paying income tax under the law as long as they file their income tax return every assessment year. In such a case, they enjoy 100% tax exemption from all sources of income. These exemptions are leading towards enormous wealth creation of political parties.
- Lack of proper scrutiny: Political parties rely heavily on ‘voluntary contributions/donations’ for fighting elections and running their daily operations. They receive huge sums of money in the form of voluntary contributions and donations from corporate, trusts and individuals. Between FY 2004-05 and 2014-15, national political parties have received the highest amount worth Rs 4,453 crore from voluntary contributions/donations, which forms 48% of the total income of national political parties.
- Unknown sources have surpassed known sources of funding:
- The unknown sources are the income that is declared in the IT returns but without giving a source of income for donations below Rs 20,000. For 11 years, between FY2004-05 and FY2014-15, national political parties have received 71% of their total income which is worth Rs 6612.42 crore from sources that cannot be traced and are therefore unknown.
- Electoral Bonds are also not promoting transparency in political funding as donors remain anonymous to public.
- There is no ceiling on expenditure incurred by the political parties at the time of elections. There no information on election expenditure of the political parties is available in public.
- Corporates donating to national parties: Corporates have increased their control over the political arena by funding political parties and their election campaigns. This is how the corporations that are essentially unaccountable to the general public influence many of the major political-economic decisions in the country.
Challenges and concerns:
- Absence of law governing political parties: Political parties, unlike any other public or private institutions, are integral to the functioning of our democracy. They enjoy unique privileges. Despite their obvious crucial role in the past almost seven decades, lawmakers have not framed any regulation or law governing the functioning of political parties. The Law Commission of India’s report of 1999 also had detailed observations on the need for regulatory oversight on the functioning of parties.
- Misuse of RTI: The disclosure of information under RTI act may give advantage to the competitors of political parties.
- Reluctance of political parties: Political parties are reluctant to disclose their internal working as well as their decision making system.
- Except for the political strategy, other matters relating to finance and administration need to be made available to public because political parties are public institutions, receiving money from public.
- There should be a proper legislation for governing political parties in India.
- A National Election Fund should be created for conducting elections to reduce the misuse of funds received by political parties.
- Scrutiny of manifestos: There should be scrutiny of manifestos of party and these manifestos should be realised one/two months before elections so that people could easily understand the manifestos given by political parties.
- The political parties should come up with self-declaration of their election expenditures and put that in public.
- The Supreme Court has declared NGos as public authorities under RTI and under same logic SC should declare political parties public authorities and bring them under RTI Act.