The Central Information Commission decides that political parties are public authorities under the Right to Information Act and directs them to designate information officers and appellate authorities as required under the Act. BY V. VENKATESAN in New Delhi

ALTHOUGH political parties are the lifeblood of democracy, their organisation and functioning in India, with a few exceptions, have been opaque. This has led to a flawed assumption among political parties, especially the mainstream ones, that they have been able to defend their influence among voters mainly because of the mystique surrounding them. It is no wonder, therefore, that when there are demands to lift the veil surrounding them, most political parties apprehend that they might face a credibility crisis.

Most political parties have refused to consider themselves public authorities under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. An admission that they are public authorities will bring them under compulsion to respond to queries from citizens under the Act regarding their funding and process of decision-making, which so far have remained outside public scrutiny. Information about these aspects in the public domain could pose a serious challenge to these parties, particularly if it is proven that their functioning is characterised by lack of probity and commitment to democratic ideals. A full Bench of the Central Information Commission ruled on June 3 that political parties are public authorities under the RTI Act and are duty-bound to answer queries from information-seekers.

The Bench, comprising Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra and Information Commissioners Annapurna Dixit and M.L. Sharma, held that the six political parties that are the respondents in this case—the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)—had been substantially financed by the Central government. Section 2(h)(ii) of the RTI Act states that “public authority” includes any non-governmental organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly, by funds provided by the appropriate government.

The CIC found that large tracts of land in prime areas of Delhi had been placed at the disposal of the political parties that are respondents in this case at exceptionally low rates. Besides, huge government accommodations have been placed at the disposal of political parties at very cheap rates, thereby bestowing financial benefits on them. The income tax exemptions granted and the free air time allotted on All India Radio and Doordarshan at the time of elections also have substantially contributed to the financing of the political parties by the Central government.

The CIC also justified its conclusion on the grounds that political parties affect the lives of citizens, directly or indirectly, in every conceivable way and are continuously engaged in performing public duty. “It is, therefore, important that they became accountable to the public,” it said. The CIC reasoned that in spite of being non-governmental, the political parties come to directly or indirectly influence the exercise of governmental power. “It would be odd to argue that transparency is good for all state organs but not so good for political parties, which, in reality, control all the vital organs of the state,” the CIC said.

The case before the CIC originated from complaints filed by the RTI activists Subhash Chandra Agrawal and Anil Bairwal, who had raised the issue of disclosure of accounts and funding of political parties. Agrawal had first sought to know from the BJP through an RTI application in May 2011 whether all the promises made in the election manifestos for Lok Sabha elections in the years when it formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister had been fulfilled.

Agrawal also sought an outline of receipts and payments made by the BJP during the two years preceding 2011 and the details of contributions made to the party fund. He had submitted a similar RTI application to the Congress, making his questions specific to the party’s rule at the Centre. Motilal Vora, All India Congress Committee treasurer, informed Agrawal that the party did not come under the purview of the RTI Act, while Shanti Prasad Aggarwal of the BJP informed him that the BJP was not a public authority and therefore it was not obliged to provide the information sought.

Bairwal, of the Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), sought specific details of party funding from six major parties—the Congress, the BJP, the NCP, the CPI(M), the CPI, and the BSP—in 2010. Of these, only the CPI informed Bairwal about the sources of 10 maximum voluntary contributions received by the party for the financial years 2004-05 to 2009-10.

Both Agrawal and Bairwal complained to the CIC, arguing that the political parties fell under the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act and therefore were mandated to disclose full and complete information to them. The CIC constituted the full Bench to hear the complaints, which raised complex issues of law.

The complainants contended that political parties had constitutional and statutory status. Incorporation of Articles 102(2) and 191(2) through the 42nd Amendment and the 10th Schedule to the Constitution had given them constitutional status. A body or entity does not become a political party in the legal sense until it is registered by the Election Commission under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and this registration lends it the character of a public authority, the complainants convincingly argued.

The CIC noted that the CPI took contradictory positions in the matter, while vouching for transparency in its accounts. Its general secretary S. Sudhakar Reddy claimed in a letter to the CIC that political parties did not come under the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, whereas former general secretary A.B. Bardhan had stated in a letter to Bairwal that the CPI was a public authority under Section 2(h). Bardhan had also confirmed to Bairwal that the party had its internal appellate authority, called “Central Control Commission”.

When the CIC issued a formal notice to all the six political parties, only two chose to respond: the NCP and the CPI(M). The NCP claimed that it did not come under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act and therefore was not bound to supply any information. The CPI(M) general secretary, Prakash Karat, submitted the details of the two properties allotted to the party in New Delhi—the A.K. Gopalan Bhavan plot and a Kotla Road plot. He also gave details of the income of the party from 2007-08 to 2011-12. Regarding the question of the quantum of tax exemption the party had availed itself of, Karat took the stand that “Parliament took the decision to exempt the income of the political parties from income tax liabilities with the aim to strengthen the democratic polity in the country as political parties and their activities are its important components.” The CPI(M), too, did not concede that it was a public authority under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act.

The CIC found that the Union Ministry of Urban Development had allotted large tracts of land in Delhi to various political parties either free of cost or at concessional rates; that the Directorate of Estates, Ministry of Urban Development, had allotted accommodation in Delhi to various political parties on a rental basis at concessional rates; that political parties had been claiming and were granted total tax exemption under Section 13A of the Income Tax Act for all their income; that the state had been indirectly financing political parties by way of free airtime on All India Radio and Doordarshan during the elections; and that recognised political parties were issued copies of electoral rolls by the Election Commission free of cost at the time of elections.

In their defence, the political parties took the stand that whatever benefits they might have received from the Central government would hardly amount to any substantial financing. The CIC held that there must be evidence of state funding which was not “insubstantial” in order to bring such non-governmental bodies within the ambit of Section 2(h)(ii).

The CIC expressed confidence in its order that bringing political parties in the ambit of the RTI Act was likely to usher in an era of transparency in their functioning. “It would result in strengthening of democracy and democratic institutions in the country,” it ruled.

The CIC directed the presidents and general secretaries of the six political parties to designate central public information officers and appellate authorities at their headquarters in six weeks’ time. The CPIOs so appointed will respond to the RTI applications of Agrawal and Bairwal in four weeks’ time, it ruled. It also asked the parties to comply with the provisions of Sections 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act by way of making voluntary disclosures on their organisation and functioning.