Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud on Tuesday orally observed that political parties may “have a point” when they fear that accountability under Right to Information (RTI) Act may stretch to even disclosure of internal decisions, including why they chose a particular candidate.
The Chief Justice, leading a three-judge Bench, was hearing a batch of petitions seeking a declaration that national and regional political parties were “public authorities” under the RTI Act. Several parties, including the Congress and the BJP, are arraigned as respondents in this case.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), represented by advocate P.V. Dinesh, said it supported the cause of financial transparency of political parties in the area of financial matters, but was against parties being compelled to reveal confidential information like “which candidate was selected for what reasons and what discussions happened within the political party, etc”.
“They have a point. They say, don’t ask us to disclose how we chose our candidates… I don’t think you can do that,” Chief Justice Chandrachud addressed advocate Prashant Bhushan and senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan, appearing for the petitioners.
“Basically they want to know how parties function,” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the government, intervened.
But Mr. Sankaranarayanan countered that the top court had passed multiple orders in the past, directing political parties to publish/advertise/tweet the criminal antecedents of their candidates. “This has not been done,” he submitted.
Detailed hearing on Tuesday
The court scheduled the case for a detailed hearing on August 1.
Mr. Bhushan argued that political parties got considerable benefits from the government, including bungalows. They had a role in governance as they controlled the opinions of their legislators through whips.
The petitions, including the one filed by NGO Association for Democratic Reforms, said the Central Information Commission (CIC), in 2013 and 2015, had declared national and regional political parties to be public authorities.
Parties’ layered repsonse
However, parties have reacted with a layered response to the CIC findings. They have argued that opening up to RTI may lead to an undemocratic infringement into their confidential discussions, including their respective attitude to the government and plans to organise agitations against the “wrong policies of the government”.
The Union government has also opposed the petitions, reasoning that parties cannot be compelled to disclose their internal functioning and financial information under the RTI Act as this would hamper smooth internal working and fester into a weak spot for political rivals with malicious intentions to take advantage of.
“The CIC has made a very liberal interpretation of Section 2 (h) of the RTI Act, leading to an erroneous conclusion that political parties are public authorities under the RTI Act. Political parties are not established or constituted by or under the Constitution or by any other law made by the Parliament,” the Centre’s affidavit had said in 2016.
It had argued that there were already provisions in the Income Tax Act, 1961, and Representation of the People Act, 1951, demand “necessary transparency regarding financial aspects of political parties”.
The Centre had submitted that the registration of a political party under the 1951 Act was not the same as the establishment of a government body. It said information about a political body was already in public domain on the website of the Election Commission. Besides Section 75 A of the 1951 Act mandated the declaration of assets and liabilities of each elected candidate.