The strong and adverse reaction of national political parties to the recent order of the Central Information Commission bringing them within the purview of the Right to Information Act (RTI) has provided proof, if proof was needed, that most of them are averse to transparency and accountability in regard to collection of funds, allotment of party tickets and such other intra-party issues. But the biggest disappointment is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the main opposition party and which at one time claimed to be “a party with a difference” is sailing along with the scam-tainted Congress Party and choosing to hedge its bets on the validity of the order.
The worst culprit was the country’s oldest party – the Congress. It dubbed the CIC’s order as “adventurist” and even claimed, by some strange logic, that the order demanding transparency in the working of political parties would “harm democratic institutions” because it would encroach upon the “privacy” of political parties. The BJP, which initially seemed to welcome the order changed its mind a day later and claimed that the order did not provide clarity on many issues and that there would be an overlap in the roles of the Election Commission and CIC. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) also termed the order as unacceptable. The Janata Dal (United) said that it was “totally opposed” to the move. During the hearings, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was the only party which had welcomed transparency in the funding of political parties. But even the CPI began speaking with a forked tongue after the CIC passed the order. Its national secretary Mr.D.Raja described the order as “disputable”. One thing is clear from the reactions of the political class to the order – they will all gang-up and do everything in their power to prevent the public from knowing how much funds they raise and where they get their funds from. Are they justified in practicing such opacity? The Congress Spokesman Mr.Janardhan Dwivedi claims that the CIC order will affect the privacy of political parties. The full implication of this statement will sink in when we realise that the source of 80 per cent of the funds obtained by political parties is dubious and not disclosed by them to the Election Commission.
The issue was first raised by Mr.Anil Bairwal of the Association of Democratic Rights (ADR). He filed an RTI application in October, 2010 and sought information from six political parties – the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India –Marxist (CPI-M) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) which are classified as national parties by the Election Commission. He asked them to furnish the names of big donors. The Congress Party declined information and said it did not come under the purview of the RTI. The NCP said it did not have the staff to respond to such “unusual” queries. The BJP, BSP and CPI(M) did not respond. The CPI was the only party which furnished information on the top ten donors. Mr.S.C.Agrawal filed another RTI application with the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party in May, 2011 and sought information on promises made in their manifestoes, promises fulfilled, list of donors to these parties and mode of payment and whether party legislators have to compulsorily contribute to the party fund. Both the parties declined to respond to the queries on the ground that they were outside the purview of the RTI.
The RTI applicants then filed complaints before the Central Information Commission and sought a direction to the political parties to disclose the information they had sought as all these parties were “public authorities” and came within the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act and therefore, they were mandated to disclose full information. In view of complexity of the issues raised, the Chief Information Commissioner constituted a full bench of the commission comprising Mr.Satyananda Mishra, Chief Information Commissioner; Ms.Annapurna Dixit and Mr.M.L. Sharma, Information Commissioners, to hear these petitions.
The petitioners argued that political parties were “public authorities” as stipulated in the RTI Act because of the following reasons: They had constitutional and legal status; they made and un-made governments and they were “substantially financed” by the government via land and buildings at throw away prices, income tax exemption, free airtime on All India Radio and Doordarshan. Mr.Bairwal showed that only about 20 per cent of the income of political parties came from donations that they disclosed to the Election Commission. “The sources of the remaining 80 per cent of the income are shrouded in mystery. This is what gives rise to all kinds of speculation about the pernicious influence of illegal money”. Since bodies or institutions which are “substantially financed by the government” come within the ambit of the RTI Act, the petitioners produced clinching evidence to establish this fact. Anil Bairwal presented tables showing benefits obtained by the six national parties under various heads. He showed that for three years from 2006-07, the Congress Party had availed of income tax exemption of Rs 300 crores whereas the BJP had availed exemption of Rs 141 crores. The BSP had got tax exemption of close to Rs 40 crores and the CPI(M) of Rs 18 crores. The cost of the air time given by All India Radio to the six national parties was Rs 28.56 lakhs during the Lok Sabha election in 2009 whereas the cost of the time allotted to these parties by Doordarshan during that election was Rs 10.75 crores.
But the real “funding” of political parties by government comes via the real estate route. In the New Delhi area dozens of bungalows are rented out to political parties like 24, Akbar Road and 11, Ashoka Road, the headquarters of the Congress and the BJP. All major parties have similar allotments of rental accommodation. All these bungalows are given at ridiculously low rent to these parties. However, the real estate in the possession of political parties does not end here. Apart from these bungalows, the government, at various times, has allocated prime plots in Lutyen’s Delhi to political parties at throwaway prices. Mr.Bairwal calculated the current market value of these valuable plots of land as follows: the Congress Party - Rs 1036; BJP – Rs 557 crores; CPI(M) – Rs 241crores; CPI – Rs 78 crores; Rashtriya Janata Dal – Rs123 crores, Samajwadi Party -261 crores; JD(U) – Rs129 crores. The total current value of plots allotted to political parties by the government in Delhi is 2556 crores.
The commission wrote to all the national political parties to elicit their response but the parties neither had the courtesy nor the gumption to respond to the CIC’s queries.
In its order, the commission fully upheld the contention of the petitioners. Citing judgements of the Supreme Court, it said “these judicial pronouncements unmistakably commend progressively higher level of transparency in the functioning of political parties in general and their funding in particular”. The Commission said the RTI Act aimed to promote transparency and accountability in the working of the every public authority, create an ‘informed citizenry’, contain corruption and hold government and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed. Political parties are important political institutions which continuously perform public functions. “Therefore, they came within the ambit of the RTI Act”.
The CIC order has given all political parties an opportunity to become more transparent and accountable. Tragically, even the BJP and the communists are currently sailing along with the Congress Party that carries the stigma of running the most corrupt government in the country’s history. Will better sense prevail and will the people get to see at least one major party to be “a party with a difference”? Let is keep our fingers crossed.