In June 2013, the Central Information Commission held six political parties to be public authorities under the RTI Act and hence subject to the transparency and information requirements under the Act.
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on August 12, 2013. It was referred to Standing Committee but did not go forward and eventually lapsed. This amendment Bill aimed to remove political parties from the ambit of the definition of public authorities and hence from the purview of the RTI Act. Additionally, the amendments were to apply retrospectively, with effect from June 3, 2013.
So are Political Parties under purview of RTI Currently ?
Six national parties — the BJP, the Congress, the BSP, the NCP, the CPI and the CPI(M) were brought under the ambit of the RTI Act by a full bench of the Central Information Commission in 2013. (The Trinamool Congress was also recognised as the seventh national party in 2016).
The political parties did not challenge the order in higher courts but at the same time, refused to entertain the RTI applications directed at them. In March 2015, CIC admitted it was powerless to enforce its ruling (2).
Several activists & the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) approached the Supreme Court on the grounds of non-compliance of the CIC order and issues with corporate funding through Electoral Bonds.
In 2018, Election Commission said in an order that political parties are out of the purview of the RTI Act contrary to the Central Information Commission’s directive of declaring political parties as public authorities (3).
The matter is currently pending in Supreme Court.
Should political parties be considered as public authorities under RTI ?
Several pleas have been filed in the Supreme Court seeking directions to declare all registered and recognised political parties as “public authority” under the Right to Information Act. The arguments include:
- As per section 29C of the Representation of People Act, donations received by politicalparties are required to be reported to the Election Commission of India. This obligation points towards their public character.
- Political Parties get tax exemptions, which amounts to indirect financing of the PoliticalParties in terms of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act.
- Central and the state governments have allotted to parties, accommodations at prime locations all over the country either, free of cost, or on concessional rates which amounts to indirect financing.
- Doordarshan allots free airtime to politicalparties during elections.
- ECI spent money for providing them facilities, such as free electoral rolls and free broadcast facilities which resulted in loss of revenue.
Political parties have collected Rs 11,234 crore from unknown sources in the last 15 years, according to election watchdog, Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR). As a result, more than 67 percent of the funds cannot be traced as they come from ‘unknown’ sources.
During FY 2018-19, BJP declared Rs 1,612.04 crore as income from unknown sources which was 64 per cent of the total income of national parties from unknown sources at Rs 2,512.98 crore. The Congress declared Rs 728.88 crore as income from unknown sources which was 29 per cent of the total income of national parties from unknown sources.
An analysis of their Income Tax Returns (ITR) and donations statements filed with the Election Commission of India (ECI) showed that the sources remained largely unknown.
At present, political parties are not required to reveal the names of individuals or organisations donating less than Rs 20,000, neither those who donate via electoral bonds.