Political Parties Deal First Blow To RTI Act

By Gajanan Khergamker

The most recent amendment bill introduced in the Lok Sabha by the UPA government aims to dilute the common man’s right to information . Watch your right go, legally...writes Gajanan Khergamker.

If there is one thing that all major political parties agreed upon and one cause they stand united for is - protesting against the order that political parties should come under the ambit of the RTI Act.

Just last week, to counter the Central Information Commissioner’s order to include major political parties under RTI Act, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government tabled the first ever bill in the Lok Sabha to make amendments in the historic RTI Act.

Even though the idea received wide protests from the common, activists and social organisations, the Manmohan Singh government decided to introduce the ‘amendment’ bill in the Lok Sabha to exempt political parties from coming under the purview of RTI Act.

The Bill tabled in the Lok Sabha proposes an amendment to Section 2 of the RTI Act which clarifies that political parties would not be treated as public authorities: “Authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted by any law made by Parliament shall not include any association or body of individuals registered or recognised as a political party under the Representation of the People Act, 1951.”

Flaying the government’s attempt to keep political parties outside the RTI Act, former Supreme Court Judge Justice (Retd) N Santosh Hegde argued they are public bodies answerable to the masses who want to know from where they get funds from. A key member of Team Anna movement, he said one has to look at the activities of political parties holistically and it’s clear that whether they are in power or not, they are dealing with public issues.

Known for uncovering a huge illegal mining scam in the state, the former Karnataka Lokayukta said political parties are certainly involved in administration one way or other. “Fact remains that they are part of body which controls administration one way or other”.

It was more than two months back, in June, when the Central Information Commissioner had ordered six major political parties – United Progressive Alliance, Bhartiya Janta Party, Nationalist Congress Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India and Bahujan Samaj Party – be brought under the RTI Act as they were, in a way, public authorities. “We have no hesitation in concluding that the INC/AICC, the BJP, the CPI (M), the CPI, the NCP and the BSP have been substantially financed by the Central government and therefore, are held to be public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act,” the judgement was noted.

The CIC reasoned that since these political parties receive ‘substantial’ amount of money from the central government, it makes them accountable to the public and hence they should come under the RTI Act. Political parties did not see any sense in this for obvious reasons and countered that if the political parties are brought under the RTI Act, the act could be misused by rival parties to extract confidential information.

The parties reasoned that bringing them under the RTI Act would force them to reveal their internal strategic decisions. But, instead of bringing the political parties under RTI Act and introducing amendments to protect them from having to reveal their ‘internal strategic decisions’, the UPA government decided to exempt the parties from RTI Act altogether. 

It was the government fund that the CIC wanted accounting for. The whole reason behind bringing the political parties under the purview of RTI Act was to make these political parties accountable when it comes to accepting funds for their campaigns and functioning of the party.

Political parties have been speculated, time and again, to be receiving funds from questionable sources. Bringing the political parties under the RTI Act would have kept a check on the funding that these political parties receive and subsequently helped in reinstating some amount of faith in public conscience.

All political parties benefit immensely from various sops offered to them for being a ‘political party,’ one of such sops being 100 per cent tax exemption on their income. It was recently reported that, due to this tax exemption, six major political parties saved more than Rs 500 crore between the years 2006 - 2009.

When calculated, out of all the political outfits, the Congress party was the one that gained that most. It got the maximum exemption of Rs 300.92 crore. The next in line was Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which saved Rs 141.25 crore in taxes. Other parties that profited from the tax exemption were Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which saved Rs 39.84 crore, Communist Party of India (Marxist) saved Rs 18.13 crore, Communist Party of India Rs 24 crore, and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Rs 9.64 crore.

Just earlier this year, an RTI application had revealed that barring one, all other political parties in Maharashtra had not been filing their income tax returns regularly. Most of the political parties all over the nation don’t file their tax returns with the Income Tax Department on a regular basis.

The definition of public authority under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act is - any non-government organisation that is substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government.' And, since political parties enjoy tax benefits, land allotment and other such facilities, they should have been included under the definition of ‘public authority.’ It was also reported that, in all, the six political parties were allotted land worth Rs 456.91 crore. 

But even despite wide protest from activists, organisation and political groups like Aam Aadmi Party, the UPA government got the bill cleared in the Cabinet earlier and has presented the bill before the Lok Sabha now. It is a known fact that, most of the bandhs and protests organised by political parties in the city or all over the country cost the exchequer a lot of money. The damages to public property, losses due to the shutting-down of shops and other service providers has a huge effect on the nation’s fiscal condition, but that does not stop political parties from gaining mileage out of smallest of things.

It was reported that around 123 BEST buses were damaged in the ‘bandh’ protest called by BJP in May last year against the hike in petrol prices. And, when it came to compensating for damages, one of the BJP party leaders, also on the BEST committee, was quick to point out that the parties (BJP and Shiv Sena) that damaged the buses shouldn’t be paying the compensation for repairing the buses it should be claimed from the insurance companies. Although he graciously accepted it would cause the common man immense trouble since almost 100 buses will be off the road for around a month.

This amendment tabled in the Lok Sabha will be the first blow to the RTI Act that was introduced to arm the common man with the weapon of knowledge.