Political parties have acted as judge, jury, supplicant and advocate in their move to amend the RTI Act and remove themselves from its purview. Their rhetoric on transparency sounds more hollow now than ever.
The RTI Act provides a regime of consummate transparency of “public authorities”. Instead of specifying information to be disclosed, the Act mandates 100 per cent transparency subject only to a tightly defined list of exclusions under which information can be denied. This prescience ensures that the Act stays current even as the form and manner of Government changes, and has been a boon to the citizen. However this pervasive transparency is incompatible with the private space that political parties – a voluntary association of persons - should be afforded.
Notwithstanding the CIC order, political parties are obligated to disclosure under the RTI Act because their operations are subsidised by the Government – not because they perform “public duties” or any “constitutional/legal provisions vesting political parties with rights and liabilities”. Government accountability, on the other hand, goes beyond tax monies. A redistributive government is equally accountable to all citizens. Since the obligation to disclose arises purely because of financial subsidies, it is reasonable to restrict the said disclosure to the flow of money.
Unfortunately, the RTI Act does not have space for graduated transparency. Accepting that a particular body is a “public authority” under the Act obligates that institution to disclose not just financial information, but also record of decisions, actions and internal deliberations. It has been conceded that this is problematic and workarounds have been suggested such as denying information under Section 8 (d) which exempts disclosure of information that harms competitive position of a party. It has also been suggested that parties need only disclose information for which records exists, and that records only need to be maintained where required by law! These are inelegant solutions, susceptible to differential arbitration by Information Commissioners. Partisan interests will further muddy waters.
It has been argued that political parties are extremely powerful bodies, and their opaque dealings the fountainhead of corruption. Therefore their accountability goes beyond financial transactions, and they must be made directly answerable to the people (elections being one part). In the relationship between the government and citizen, the latter is democratically unencumbered by questions of relevance or intention. However, opening private bodies to external interference is contingent on public interest. Hence the scope of disclosure must be proactively limited through specification. The partisan nature of electoral politics mandates uniform disclosure of this information for all political parties, instead of just to the RTI applicant. This will need a mediating institutional mechanism to act as a repository and ensure dissemination. Such a role is played by the Election Commission in the instance of election candidate affidavits – which are then used for a vibrant public campaign by civil society organisations.
The public discourse on this issue has become polarized between transparency advocates and the political class. But political parties have legislative veto. While it is true that amendments have been successfully thwarted each time in the past by a vigilant citizenry, this time is different. Given the anti-politician mood and recent judicial orders, political parties are unlikely to appeal to the Courts for relief. Together the six affected parties command a majority vote in the Parliament. Amendments to nullify the CIC order are imminent. It is thus important to try and find common ground through a nuanced and deliberative approach.
(Ruchi Gupta is an independent researcher in Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)