Monday, July 27, 2015

RTI 2015 :- The Right Foot Forward

Democracy is a powerful participatory means of governance with vibrant set of governing ideologies and laws for establishing and maintaining social, political, and economic standards within a community, society and the nation.  Democracy is shaped and maintained by well-informed, concerned and responsible citizens, exercising their absolute rights directly, and through term-limited elected representatives. 

Thus, Right to Information (“RTI”) as well as Political parties, are both pivotal and inevitable aspect of democracy where political Parties participates in governing and administration, while RTI attempts to keep an eye, over free and fair competition, information and detection pursued.

Having said that, The Central Information Commission's (“CIC”) recent decision of bringing political parties (six national parties), the only entities which are not subject to any regulation or regulator within the ambit of the Right to Information Act, 2005, will presumably have far reaching repercussions for democracy in India and one could easily infer and expect that the CIC ruling would pave the way for ending the ambiguity of funding sources that has become the imprint of all political parties in our country.

The necessity for more transparency and consequently a regulatory authority has also been acknowledged on several occasions and in the reports of various Commissions. Disclosing the identity of donors will dispel the suspicions of "conflict of interests" that arise by keeping the finances and donors secret.

Though, CIC ruling intends to empower citizens with the access to information inter alia regarding the donors of all political parties, the amount of donations, tax exemptions claimed by political parties, expenditure by political parties on renting out office space and also the exorbitant travel expenditure during elections, most political parties in the utmost rare display of camaraderie have expressed their disagreement over the decision, with the ruling party at the centre calling the decision as "adventurist" in its implications.

It is pertinent to note here that by bringing the political parties under the RTI, the CIC has merely created another power centre that would play the role of a watch dog and at the most be entitled to express its comments and observations on them. They will be precluded from carrying out any amendments in the manner in which they function or to the decision making process. Further, this power centre may be comprised of bureaucrats who can be influenced by the political parties.

Parties contend that disclosing the identity of the donors will lead to harassment by other political parties to whom they haven't contributed but this decision of CIC proceeded on the basis of weighing the balance of convenience and rightly probed into the wider implications on public policy and emphasising that the citizens' right to know must prevail over the "harassment" argument. This argument, is not without merit in the Indian context, but at the same time this argument must also be placed in the context of a insidious nexus between political parties on one hand and corporate, Industrialists and business houses on other, this nexus has been substantially and beyond doubt exposed in the 2G scam as well as the coal scam.

In all probabilities, RTI may not be successful in eradicating or even restricting the black money generated by the political parties. The fact being, the parties anyways disclose all the legal requirements pertaining to the source of funds and the expenditure. This information is available with EC. While it is true that 75% of fund is from unknown sources but RTI may be incapacitated from enforcing as political party would successfully reveal that the funds came to them in smaller chunks, that is, less than Rs 20,000. The donation amount above which parties are required to keep a record of their donors is Rs. 20,000. If one checks the statistics of their election spending, parties often allegedly get more than 90% of their funds as sub 20k donations and thus they do not have the detail.

It would be apt to conclude that the CIC’s decision is intended to bring more transparency within the political parties, and in all probabilities is likely to lead to more debates in the courts as to the nature of a "public authority". Last but not the least the political system of our country needs a thorough cleansing and under the circumstances, the decision of the CIC to bring the political parties under the mandatory umbrella of the RTI Act is a commendable step and is a decision in a positive direction.