Surely something is amiss when ideologically diverse political parties reach a consensus on anything in quick time. Without even waiting to legally challenge the order of the Central Information Commission bringing parties under the ambit of the Right to Information Act, the Union Cabinet has decided to amend the Act to nullify the effect of the order. Political parties will have to accept the fact that they are accountable to their members, and to the people they seek to represent. Transparency in the funding of parties and monitoring of their expenses are essential in any functioning party-based democracy. Parties, especially bigger ones, sustain themselves on off-the-books transactions, and lean on business houses for expenses at the time of elections and public events. Inevitably, there is a price to pay when these parties come to power, a price that is often willingly paid in terms of policies and concessions tailored to the needs of the election-time benefactors. This nexus between industrial houses and political parties operates in the shadow economy. As with all corrupt exchanges where both giver and taker are benefited, the opacity of the dealings serves as immunity against prosecution. At present, parties are required to declare to the Election Commission donations in excess of Rs.20,000. However, non-reporting and under-reporting is common, and the EC does not have the power or the capacity to verify declarations. Opening up the ledgers of political parties to public scrutiny could be the first step in making them more accountable.
However, in making the internal deliberations of parties and their criteria for selection of candidates also subject to the RTI Act, the CIC clearly exceeded its jurisdiction. Free and frank discussions behind closed doors are intrinsic to inner-party democracy, and to open up all deliberations to RTI queries is tantamount to silencing, or wiping off the record, dissenting voices. Those wanting answers on the criteria for selection of party candidates for an election might have been hoping to expose choices made on the basis of caste identity or muscle power, but the use of the RTI Act in such matters can make political parties vulnerable to motivated attacks from opponents and wreckers from within. A better way of ensuring transparency in candidate selection is to push for effective empowerment of constituency-level party members — as in the United Kingdom — but RTI can hardly be the vehicle for this. That said, instead of hurriedly seeking to nullify the effect of the CIC’s order, the government should use it as an opportunity to find ways to make political parties more financially accountable — and less corrupt.