Why RTI will not turn politics public

BY Manu Moudgil| IN Media Practice | 17/06/2013
Political parties operate in a space starkly different from government-run agencies which can actually help them escape close scrutiny.
MANU MOUDGIL tells us how the new ruling will apply to them. PIX: BJP.org
The CIC order making six major political parties answerable to public through Right to Information (RTI) Act has ruffled many a feathers. While politicians are asking for amendment in the law to ensure immunity for their parties, civil society and the media have thrown their weight behind the necessity of public scrutiny into source of funding and internal workings of the political parties which, as the judgement said, "are the life blood of the entire constitutional scheme in a democratic polity."

However, even if the parties are covered under the RTI Act, it may not lead to as dramatic results as we have seen with other public authorities like government departments. Under RTI, only information which is documented can be asked for. The authority is not obliged to create information. Political parties not only differ from other public authorities in structural ways but also in their functioning and record keeping practices. In political parties, many of the deliberations are not documented or recorded as are done through minutes of meetings in other organisations. For instance, do you think BJP will be maintaining records related to its latest internal turmoil? Would you be able to get information about what its leaders discussed with RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat, before he had a talk with L K Advani, under the RTI Act? The fact that we were still privy to the inside developments thanks to leakage of selective information to media, shows that political parties operate in a completely different environment where strategies are often played out rather than spelled out.

Government-run authorities are mandated to follow 'Manual of Records' which not only details the recording and classification routines but also movement of files. Since these agencies have been regularly subjected to audits, media glare and public complaints, the process of decision making, funds management and grievance redressal has already been defined and put in place. On the other hand, political parties are governed by 'The Representation of The People Act' which does not push for any such conditions except submission of audited annual financial statements to the Election Commission of India and annual reports regarding all contributions above Rs 20,000.

The six political parties have been adjudged as "public authorities" because these organisations availed tax exemptions, got land for free or on concessional rates, and were given free air time on public service broadcasters besides other material benefits. However, these parties are still in a different league than other public authorities. Government departments and agencies receive public funds and have to record the whole decision making process before spending a single penny. On the other hand, political parties spend the money received from individuals and non-governmental organisations and hence don't have to go through similar rigours while spending it. The audited financial statements remain the only check.

Regarding funds, political parties are not bound to disclose the source below Rs 20,000 donation. An analysis done by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) found that between 80-90 per cent of the income of five major political parties was through donations below Rs 20,000. For 2009-10 and 2010-11, while 81 per cent of the BJP's funding accrued from donations, only 22.76 per cent of the total income came from named donors who had contributed over Rs. 20,000. The corresponding figures for the Congress indicate that a mere 11.89 per cent of the total income was from named donors. BSP with declared income of Rs 172 crore for the two years had donations accounting for Rs 99 crore, all of which came from unnamed sources.

So, even when these parties are put in the ambit of RTI, nothing much will come out of it which is not already known. This does not mean that a more transparent mechanism can't be put in place, but a simple CIC ruling can't ensure that. It would require new laws or amendment to existing laws.

That the RTI Act is not being followed in its true spirit even by government agencies is well known. Section 4(1) (b) of the legislation says that a public authority should proactively disclose not only its organisational structure and functioning but also all relevant facts about its policies and decisions which affect the public. The idea was to not only make the authorities more transparent but also reduce the need for filing of RTI applications. However, this clause was so poorly implemented that Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) had to constitute a task force which led to adoption of new guidelines on April 15 this year for implementation of suo motu disclosure of information. But since these guidelines are not mandatory, the door for public authorities to play truant is still open.

The concerns of politicians that RTI will enable anyone to access the electoral strategy of a party does not hold ground since the in-built protective mechanism under Section 8 of the legislation allows for non-disclosure of commercial confidence and trade secrets. The argument that frivolous applications will be filed and this will impede work of the parties also falls flat. This is a universal defence which is put forward by any authority that is covered under the RTI Act. 

However, not only have the government departments got adept at dealing with information requests, they are also able to rake a moolah out of it. The application fee of Rs 10, additional charges and penalties earned central public authorities over Rs 1 crore in 2011-12. Even if penalty charges levied on the public information officers, who will inarguably be party workers, are ignored, a considerable sum of white money will still flow into the party funds. Keeping in view all these facts, politicians should actually welcome the move.

And maybe, just like government departments, political parties will at least get used to the idea of transparency even if total implementation seems like a distant dream for the time being.
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