(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
June 09, 2013
CIC is Wrong: A Political
Party is not a Public Authority
THE Central Information Commission (CIC) has given an order that political parties are to be treated as “public authorities,” as defined in the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005. By this decision, the commission has placed the political parties on par with government and state institutions. Under the RTI Act, any one can access information from government or a state institution regarding the decisions taken, about the expenditure incurred and the relevant file notings on matters concerning the body. The purpose of the act is to allow citizens access to information about the government and publicly funded state institutions which may have affect the lives of the rights of citizens. The CPI(M) had supported the legislation and its adoption as a democratic step forward.
However, the step taken by the CIC to extend the purview of the RTI Act by declaring that a political party is a “public authority” is misconceived and wrong. This order stems from a lack of understanding and a basic misconception about the role of political parties in a parliamentary democracy. Political parties are not governmental organisations or state funded entities. There is no constitutional provision for a political party. A political party is an association of citizens who come together voluntarily to form a party. This can be on the basis of the fact that they subscribe to a particular ideology, programme and leadership, which the party stands for or espouses. Thus, there can be a wide range of parties differing in their political, ideological and organisational functioning. Therefore, to term these political parties as “public authorities” on the ground that they are substantially financed directly or indirectly by the government or the state power is fundamentally wrong. It blurs the distinction and mixes up the role and functions of the political parties with those of the government and the government sponsored organisations.
By declaring a political party to be a “public authority” under the RTI Act, the CIC wants to ensure that any one can apply and get information and material about the functioning of a political party, about the decisions it takes on political, organisational and policy matters and about its finances and sources of funding. For instance, under the RTI Act, a citizen can apply for information about how a government department took certain decisions and how it implemented them. There can also be access to file notings and official correspondence on the matter. Now by the CIC’s new order, any one can ask for access to internal deliberations of a political party. They can ask for relevant material and papers which went into the decision making and the views of various office-bearers of the party concerned. If such a procedure is adopted, it will harm the very mode of inner-party functioning. Within a party, discussions are held and it is on the basis of confidentiality that certain decisions are taken. To demand that such deliberations be made available will be a serious infringement on the nature of inner-party discussions and the way decisions are taken by a political party. This can lead to an undermining of the structure of political party itself. By such a dispensation under the RTI Act, for example, a BJP member can demand information about the internal matters of the CPI(M) and vice versa. Opponents of a political party can thus utilise the RTI Act as an instrument against another party.
AN ENCROACHMENT ON
THE DEMOCRATIC RIGHT
The CPI(M) is a party which is organised on the principle of democratic centralism. This is a distinctive method which a Communist Party adopts; no other party follows this principle. If the RTI Act is applied to ask for information on the party’s decision making, this will directly harm the discipline of the party. By the principle of democratic centralism, members of the party in their elected committees cannot divulge inner-party discussions which are conducted democratically in a free and frank manner. How a party conducts its internal discussions and functioning is for that party to decide. It is accountable only to its own members who have voluntarily joined the party. Bringing this area of decision making and organisational functioning under the RTI Act will undermine the political system and is an encroachment on the democratic right of political parties.
One of the demands made under the RTI Act for political parties is to provide the basis for the selection of candidates --- a fact mentioned in the CIC’s order. But how a party selects its candidates is its own business; how is it a concern of others? In a democracy, the people are free to judge and decide which candidate to vote for or not. In a democratic system, a political party has the right to decide whom to put up as a candidate --- according to whatever criteria they wish to adopt, which are within the legal framework. For instance, as per the law, a person convicted of a serious crime cannot be put up as a candidate, as he or she will be disqualified. If there is any need for change in the law, it can be discussed. But the intrinsic right of a political party to put up candidates on the basis of its own criteria cannot be questioned or subjected to any public scrutiny.
Unlike what the CIC has stated, political parties are not substantially financed or funded by a government or the state power. The examples cited to prove such funding are irrelevant or negligible. For instance, much is made of the time slots given to political parties in the state-funded media like Doordarshan and All India Radio. The effort to quantify the money involved in terms of prime time advertisements is unfounded. First of all, election broadcasts or telecasts cannot be quantified in commercial terms. Secondly, their role in election propaganda of the political parties is negligible and the funds spent on other forms of election propaganda by the parties and candidates are of a much larger magnitude.
example given to prove government funding is that land or
buildings have been
given to political parties on a rental or lease basis for
Political parties are not commercial or profit making
entities. The government
provides land to a variety of non-governmental organisations
which are not
meant to be commercial or profit making bodies. In
There is a genuine concern about how political parties raise money and fund their activities. There should indeed be transparency and accountability in the funding and finances of political parties. Under the present law, every recognised political party has to submit its annual statement of accounts and finances to the Income Tax Department and to the Election Commission. The Election Commission has been providing information about the political parties’ audited accounts and finances to anyone who applies for it under the RTI Act. Under the existing law, any donation of Rs 20,000 and above has to be recorded with the name and address of the donor. This list is also accessible under the RTI Act from the Election Commission. The CPI(M) was the first party to advocate that even the IT returns filed by the party can be made public. Since the party is demanding electoral reforms where there should be an element of state funding towards election expenditure of political parties, the CPI(M) strongly advocates that the finances and funding of political parties be made public.
The CPI(M) has put out a detailed statement of how it collects funds and the sources of its finances in August 2012. About 40 per cent of the annual income of the party comes from the levy collected from party members and from the annual membership fees. Every month party members have to contribute a percentage of their income as levy to the party. This ranges from Rs 5 to Rs 5,000, according to a slab system. The levy on the CPI(M) MPs and MLAs is higher. For instance, MPs and former MPs contributed to the Central Committee Rs 1.37 crore in the year 2011. The CPI(M), as a matter of principle, does not accept donations from corporate houses. The party has a method of mass collections from the people periodically where small amounts are the main type of contributions. Whoever wants to, can access the details of the CPI(M)’s finances from the Election Commission.
Another factor cited in the CIC order is the tenth schedule of the constitution whereby members of parliament and legislatures elected on a party ticket can be disqualified if they leave that party and join another party or defy the party whip in voting. The concerned political party can then move for their disqualification. This has been cited to accord the political parties a statutory status. This is an obfuscation. The germane issue is to stop defection by elected representatives who betray the mandate given to them. It applies to members of legislative bodies but does not apply to other members of parties who are free to leave a party and join another. The disqualification of a member can be done only by the presiding officer of the house and not by a political party. Thus what was a constitutional amendment brought to stop defections by elected representatives is now being cited to make the political party a “public authority.”
A political party cannot be treated as an NGO which is getting substantial state funding. Political parties play a vital role in the parliamentary democratic system. That role should not be hampered or infringed upon by dubbing these parties as “public authorities.”
The CIC has exceeded its brief under the RTI Act by setting out a new definition of political parties. When the parliament adopted the Right to Information Act in 2005, which was supported by the CPI(M) too, the intention of the parliament was not to bring political parties as “public authorities” under its purview. Therefore, it is necessary for the government to discuss with all the political parties and get the necessary clarification incorporated in the RTI Act itself by parliament.