It is virtually impossible for anybody to monitor who pays what to political parties. People pay because they want something in return.

Political parties and RTI Both privacy and accountability are importantBy ROHAN DUMBRE, Wikimedia commons
Voices Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - 17:21

Anyone who says funding for political parties must say quid pro quo in the same breath. That is the nature of the beast and the world’s largest and relatively young democracy – India - is having a spirited conversation about it at present. Must political parties come under the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) act?

The government has opposed this in the Supreme Court saying this type of access will be intrusive and it will obstruct their smooth functioning. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) has said the Central Information Commission (CIC) erred on June 2013 when it ruled that political parties are public authorities under the RTI act, hence accountable. The government’s contention is that the very purpose of the act would be defeated as the discourse could very swiftly slip into RTI vs RTI debate. The DoPT also claimed that the CIC had made a “very liberal” interpretation of the act concluding that political parties are public institutions.

There are two major inter-linked issues here. One is legal and the other is ethical. There is no law on earth capable of preventing a corrupt person from dipping into the jar either as part of a political party, member of the government or as an individual. Ethics is a work-place requirement and instruments like the RTI act are meant to secure propriety in public life.

The legal track is where the debate currently stands. Even in democracies with high levels of education and political awareness there is no last word on ways and means for political parties to raise funds for their campaigns or full disclosure. In the United States (US) funds come in via membership fees or organisations including corporations that share political views. There is also one slab of grants and aid from tax-payers general revenue fund. In other words, there’s a mix funding possibilities but the long shadows of corruption are never behind. Awarding of contracts to the military-industrial-trade complex, board memberships and ambassadorial positions are some ways to pay off supporters.

In Europe the scene is not very different. There have been numerous scandals in the United Kingdom (UK), France, Germany and Italy that wins hands down in this area of political activity. In some European countries a member of the government (politician) is bound by one set of rules and a government servant (bureaucrat).

Petitioners Subhash Chandra Aggarwal and Anil Bairwal of the Association of Democratic reforms (ADR) went to the CIC earlier this year which in turn instructed the DoPT to take action. Separately, ADR and Aggarwal moved a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court where they asked for full disclosure by political parties and public authorities of their incomes and expenditures so the public could scrutinise them.

A bench led by Chief Justice HL Dattu issued a notice to the DoPT which filed an affidavit late last week stating that political parties cannot be called public authorities because they are formed neither under the Constitution nor under any law of the Parliament. As for financial transactions the DoPT said there were provisions under the Representation of the People Act and the Income Tax Act that places the onus on politicians to remain clean.

The DoPT is obviously weighing in to strengthen the existing organisations instead of creating another actor in this already-complicated piece.

It is virtually impossible for anybody to monitor who pays what to political parties. People pay because they want something in return. And it can be argued that political parties, standing by themselves without any role in the government, are private entities. As such, they cannot be entirely brought under the ambit of the RTI. However, the moment a person enters public office they must, without exception, come under the purview of the RTI act. That was the purpose of the act and it needs to be strengthened by all actors critical among who are politicians, civil society and the media. And there is one more aspect – when a public figure is caught, punishment must be swift. The absence of justice is anathema in a democracy.