S Murlidharan

No RTI please, we are political parties

S. MURLIDHARAN | Updated on March 09, 2018

Done in by creative interpretation of RTI. — K. Pichumani

They may come together to tweak the information law sooner than they pass the Food Bill.

What’s in a definition? Plenty.

The term ‘income’ has not been defined exhaustively in the income-tax law. Indeed, that is neither feasible nor desirable, given the myriad ways income can be generated. The Government would be shooting itself in the foot if it were to give a comprehensive list of incomes.

But while making the Right to information Act (RTI), Parliament has given considerable latitude to the Central Information Commission (CIC) to interpret whether a body is indeed a public authority as to come under the machinations of RTI. ‘Any body directly or indirectly substantially funded by the Government’, the seemingly innocuous words occurring in Section 2(h) of the RTI, have, in fact, been giving rise to both unintended and bizarre consequences for no fault of the CIC. The latest is its interpretation that political parties must reveal all to the public when faced with a query.

Open-ended definition

The UPA government that thumps its chest for ushering in the RTI also, from time to time, goes into a sulk and rues its decision when its ministers and others face the music, thanks to the revelations made under RTI. What it must be ruing more is the slack in drafting that gave the CIC the power to put in the dock pretty much who it pleases.

The Congress and other parties may have to bare their books and other confidential papers to public gaze and scrutiny.

The CIC’s interpretation that political parties are public authorities on the ground that they get government accommodation and public broadcast time free and hence must be deemed to have been substantially funded by the government, albeit indirectly, would have irked the political parties no end.

The entire UPA dispensation can be counted upon to rise as a phalanx to annul the CIC’s alleged creative interpretation in branding political parties as public authorities. And in this self-serving retreat, the Opposition parties may well play ball.

Privileged information

Politicians cut across party and ideological lines for giving themselves more and more salary and perquisites. They can be similarly counted upon to close ranks to defeat the incipient trouble posed by the CIC before it snowballs into a major embarrassment for all of them. Skeletons might well tumble out of each one’s cupboard if an RTI activist imbued with evangelical or mischievous zeal demands information of political parties. Therefore, whether an ordinance is brought on the Food Bill or not, an ordinance retrospectively amending the RTI to save political parties from its clutches should not come as a surprise.

The political class may well argue that if income-tax returns constitute privileged information, available with the public authority called the income tax department, it is equally true that the information with the political parties too is privileged. Asking political parties to make their documents public would be as unacceptable as asking competitors to bare their trade secrets.

That said, there is nevertheless a compelling case for bringing funds of political parties on a par with others.

There is no reason why an activist should be silenced when he wants to know the sources of funding of a political party.

One hopes what is denied by the political parties would be provided by the Election Commission, that is admittedly a public authority armed to the teeth with information on political parties.

But no amount of disclosures would make a dent on the pernicious role played by black money in political funding.

Political leaders have been caught on camera scooping up black money but treasurers of political parties of all persuasions are busy counting mountains of cash, and recording the source and amount in clandestine ledgers.

Political funding indeed cries for reforms, but not through RTI, because clandestine ledgers would always remain beyond the public gaze. State funding comes out as the most effective solution to this vexed problem because corporate funding can never be kosher, with its potential to make governments subservient to corporate interests always looming large.

Conferring blanket exemption from income tax to political parties encourages the mafia and crooks to form political parties.

In fact, the Election Commission has gone on record castigating the mindless exemptions to political parties and political donations and blaming these for the mushrooming growth of political parties in this country. Money laundering has never been so easy.

(The author is a New Delhi-based chartered accountant)

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Published on June 11, 2013
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