The tag line for India’s much-acclaimed transparency law could well be: good for others, not for me. The Supreme Court loftily decreed the right to information to be a part of the fundamental right to free expression. It nonetheless resisted the application of the Right to Information Act, 2005, to itself, and went in appeal to a lower court against a decision in this regard by the Central Information Commission. The apex court has since relented somewhat and placed the assets of its judges in the public domain. It might be a harder battle to bring political parties to account judging by early reactions to Monday’s CIC order deeming them to be public authorities under the RTI Act. Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, for one, was clear that the law could not be allowed to “run riot,” whatever that means. In the past, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has weighed in on the side of privacy in the RTI debate, arguing that the law in practice had become too intrusive. Significantly, the Association for Democratic Reforms which petitioned the CIC on bringing political parties under the RTI Act, has made the opposite case: that lack of scrutiny had led to parties being able to accumulate unexplained wealth running into hundreds of crores of rupees.
The ADR argued that political parties must be treated as public authorities because they receive substantial government support in the form of free air time on Doordarshan and All India Radio during elections, discounted rents for party offices and large income-tax exemptions. The organisation calculated that government subsidies for the two largest parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, alone amounted to Rs. 255 crore. Despite the official largesse, political parties insisted that they were not public authorities and managed not to reveal the source for a large part of their incomes by showing them as small voluntary donations exempt from disclosure. The CIC accepted the petitioner’s contention, and went on to note that the “nature of duties performed by political parties points towards their public character.” There is a double irony here. The BJP, which has threatened to make repatriation of black money an election issue, refused to entertain ADR’s RTI application seeking details of its wealth and assets. The UPA birthed the RTI Act with much fanfare and the legislation holds pride of place in its list of achievements. Yet, thanks to the RTI being harnessed for unearthing scams, the government has found itself debunking a law that is its own creation. With the CIC’s ruling, the political class is bound to unite against a law that has been hugely empowering for the common person.