How to Bring Transparency

Bureaucrats dealing with the Right to Information (RTI) Act are in a collision course with politicians, mostly belonging to opposition parties. With the Central Information Commission (CIC) order issued recently, seeking to bring in political parties under the transparency law at par with public authorities as six national parties namely Congress, BJP, NCP, CPI(M) and CPI and BSP are indirectly funded by public money from the exchequer, a lot of controversy seems to have cropped up. In plain language the CIC verdict means political parties are public authorities performing public functions and they are not above RTI Act.

As the full-bench CIC-award holding political parties accountable under RTI Act which will supposedly induce much-needed transparency and accountability in the present highly polluted political system, parties see in it a ploy to curb their activities as the next general election is not far away. So they want immunity and urge the government to amend the RTI Act to exempt them. But the government is unlikely to do that. Transparency induced by the verdict tends to impose a check on corruption scams and scandals presently deep-rooted in the political system. In truth some political parties and their leaders are trying to create confusion that the verdict will make political parties accountable to Central Information Commission also in addition to Election Commission. Bringing political parties under RTI Act will make them accountable to members of public filing RTI petitions with them. But the role of Central Information Commission will arise only if RTI petitioner approaches the Commission on not being satisfied with response from Public Information Officer and first Appellate Authority. Political parties even after CIC-verdict will be providing information direct to petitioners if Commission directs so.

For one thing there are sufficient provisions under various sub-sections of exemption-clause 8(1) where undesired queries can be declined. There is also section 7(9) to decline information if it diverts resources of public-authority (political party) disproportionately. However there is also section 4(1)(b) where political parties should sue-motto make maximum disclosure to reduce number of RTI petitions filed with them.

The hard fact is that the union government at the centre is itself divided over the issue as the Congress leader and Information Broadcasting Minister Mr Manish Tewari would like to amend the Income Tax Act, not the RTI Act as such, to make the parties accountable in a meaningful way. Parties think the ruling that CIC delivered on June 3, is actually aimed at unearthing small donations below Rs 20,000 that don’t attract Income Tax disclosure, and so they oppose it. After all small donations contribute the major funding of opposition parties. They are scared by the CIC move as the ruling establishment can always harass its opposition adversaries if they so wish by way of strictly following the CIC order. It remains to be seen whether the government at the centre makes a compromise by amending the RTI Act as per demand of the opposition or goes ahead with the CIC idea of making transparency law workable. [contributed]

Vol. 45, No. 50, June 23 -29, 2013

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