Dark secret: how six parties frustrated the bid to bring them under RTI
- Activists requested political parties to disclose all donations.
- They refused; the activists complained to the CIC.
- All six parties refused to comply despite repeated notices.
- Exhausted, the activists petitioned the Supreme Court.
- The SC has asked the parties to respond to the PIL.
In a sense, the root of many evils in India, is the nature of election funding.
It is particularly significant, therefore, that this week the Supreme Court has asked six national political parties to respond to a public interest petition that seeks to bring them under the Right to Information Act. This has been a long time coming.
The PIL had its genesis in 2006, just a year after the RTI Act came into effect, when the Association for Democratic Reforms filed an RTI application with the Central Board of Direct Taxes requesting copies of income tax returns, or ITRs, of 22 political parties.
The request was denied, and the ADR appealed to the appellate authorities. When these appeals were rejected, it went to the Central Information Commission. After several hearings, during which all parties vehemently opposed disclosing their tax returns, the CIC, on 29 April, 2008, asked the CBDT to furnish the ITRs.
The ITRs revealed that political parties routinely declared hundreds of crores in income but did not pay income tax, arguing that Section 13A of the Income Tax Act exempted them.
One party declared hundreds of crores in income, but insisted it never got a donation of over Rs 20,000
Section 13A, however, has a proviso that this exemption can be availed only if the party submits a list of all donations over Rs 20,000 to the Election Commission.
Records obtained from the EC through an RTI request revealed that few parties submitted these lists. Subsequently, the EC insisted that they do, and the parties complied.
Follow the money
A comparison of the income declared in the ITRs and the details of donations given to the EC revealed that, on average, the donations covered just 25-30% of the total income. One party, in fact, declared hundreds of crores in income, but insisted that not a single donation it had received was over Rs 20,000.
Across political parties, 75-80% of the declared income was from unknown sources, prompting the ADR to send RTI requests for disclosure of the sources. All parties declined the request, saying they were not public authorities under the RTI Act.
Following this, the ADR filed a complaint with the CIC on March 14, 2011, asking that the six national parties to be declared public authorities under the RTI Act. Six months later, RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal filed a similar complaint.
In 2013, the CIC directed the Congress, BJP, BSP, CPI(M) to submit to the RTI Act. They've blatantly refused
Both the ADR and Agrawal presented data to show that political parties fulfilled the criteria laid down in section 2(h) of the RTI Act that defines a "public authority".
In several hearings before a full bench of the CIC, the six parties - some represented by senior lawyers, others by their own well-known leaders - rejected the proposal. However, in its decision on 3 June, 2013, the CIC held that the Congress, BJP, CPI(M), CPI, NCP and BSP are public authorities under section 2(h).
The CIC directed the parties to "designate CPIOs and the appellate authorities" within six weeks. "The CPIOs so appointed will respond to the RTI applications extracted in this order in four weeks time," it added.
Under a cloud
All six parties ignored the decision, forcing the ADR and Agrawal to complain to the CIC. The commission again convened its full bench of three Information Commissioners, and held several hearings.
None of the parties, however, turned up for the hearings even when the CIC issued showcause notices. In their absence, the commission pronounced its decision on 16 March 2015, which said:
- The commission's order of 3 June 2013 is "binding and final. It has not been affected by any judicial or legislative intervention".
- "As per the commission's order, which is final and binding, the respondent national political parties are public authorities under the RTI Act."
- "It is clear that the respondents have not implemented, as public authorities, the directions contained in the commission's order."
- The commission "is bereft of the tools to get its orders complied with".
- "The complainants are at liberty, in view of the facts and circumstances of this case, to approach the higher courts for appropriate relief and redressal."
The complainants, the ADR and Agarwal, took the advice and approached the Supreme Court with a PIL.
What is disconcerting about all this is that six major political parties have blatantly refused to accept the decision of the highest statutory authority responsible for implementing a law unanimously passed by the Parliament. And that this statutory authority has found itself unable to get its own decision implemented.
Let's hope the highest court in the land will set this right.
The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.