In a landmark ruling to ensure transparency in the functioning of political parties, the Central Information Commission on Monday held that the parties are public authorities and answerable to citizens under RTI Act.
The Commission, a quasi-judicial body, has said six national parties Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, Nationalist Congress Party, Communist Party of India-Marxist, Communist Party of India and Bahujan Samaj Party have been substantially funded indirectly by the central government and they have the character of public authority under the RTI Act as they perform public functions.
After the order of the full bench of CIC, the parties will be answerable to the citizens regarding their source of funding, how they spend money and choice of candidates for elections, among other issues.
The CIC has directed the parties to appoint Public Information Officers within six weeks to respond to RTI queries and adhere to all the legal provisions.
"In view of the nature of public functions performed by political parties...we conclude that political parties in question are public authorities under section 2(h) of the RTI Act," the Bench, comprising Chief Information Commissioner Satyanand Mishra and Information Commissioners Annapurna Dixit and M L Sharma, said.
The Commission held that political parties have the character as public authorities and "we hold that INC, BJP, CPIM, CPI, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the central government under section 2(h)(ii) of the RTI Act".
The Bench held the income tax exemptions granted to the parties and free air time given by All India Radio and Doordarshan at the time of elections also substantially contribute to indirect financing from the government.
"We have no hesitation in concluding that INC/AICC, BJP, CPI-M, CPI, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the central government and therefore they are held to be public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act," the Bench ordered.
On the performing of public duty point raised by Bairwal, the CIC held that political parties "affect the lives of the citizens, directly or indirectly in every conceivable way and are continuously engaged in performing public duty. It is, therefore, important that they become accountable to public". "We are of the opinion that bringing the political parties in the ambit of RTI Act is likely to usher an era of transparency in their functioning. Besides, it would result in strengthening of democracy and democratice institutions in the country," the Commission said.
Activist Anil Bairwal of Association of Democratic Reforms and Subhash Agrawal had directed their RTI applications to these parties which were made parties by CIC when the matter reached the panel.
While Agrawal had sought information from Congress and BJP, Bairwal had sought details of funding and donors from the six major parties.
Not getting any response, they had approached the CIC seeking declaration of political parties as public authorities under the Right to Information Act after which citizens can seek information from them by paying Rs 10 as the fee.
After detailed hearings where representatives of these parties opposed bringing them under the RTI Act, the CIC full bench held in a 54-page order that they fulfill the criteria of being public authorities under the Act.
The Commission based its decision on three important points raised by complainants --substantial funding received by the parties from government, performance of public duty by them and legal provisions vesting them with rights and liabilities.
The Commission said since no income tax was paid by the parties, the exact quantum of rebate could not be quantified since income of all these political parties would place them in the highest slab of income tax, at least 30 per cent of their total income would have been collected as income tax but for the total exemption given to them by law.
"No one can dispute that this is substantial financing, though indirectly," it said.
The political parties had contended such exemptions are routinely extended to many charitable and non-profit non-governmental organisations across the country but they are not considered public authorities.
This point was rejected by the CIC which said there is a great difference between the tax exemption given to charitable and non-profit non-governmental organisations and that given to political parties.
Outlining the difference in the two cases, the CIC said exemptions to non-profit non-governmental organisations are strictly conditional and withdrawn if they do not fulfill their objectives whereas the tax exemption given to the political parties is unfettered.
"The only condition being that they must report to the Election Commission of India, every year, the details of all the contributors who contribute Rs 20,000 or more to the political party concerned. Thus, the political parties enjoy an almost unfettered exemption from payment of income tax, a benefit not enjoyed by any other charitable or non-profit non-governmental organisations," it said.
The bench said "no democracy can exist today without political parties. An ordinary citizen does not have direct access to the government except through his elected representative and cannot hope to be part of the government without being a member of a Political Party. It is, thus, through the Political Parties that the citizens of a democracy operationalise the democratic state."
The CIC said political parties come into existence only after registering with the Election Commission which awards symbols under given legal provisions.
"ECI is vested with the superintendence, direction and control of elections under Article 324 of the Constitution. ECI is also vested with the authorities to suspend ot withdraw recognition of a political parties in certain contingencies," the CIC said.
It said political parties can recommend disqualification of members of the House in certain contingencies under the Tenth Schedule.
"The contention is that the aforesaid constitution/statutory powers of political parties bring them in the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act. We find the above submission quite compelling and unerringly pointing towards their character as public authority," it said.
It said INC, BJP, CPIM, CPI, NCP and BSP have been been substantially financed by Central Government under section 2(h)(ii) of the RTI Act.
"The criticality of the role being played by these political parties in our democratic set up and the nature of duties performed by them also point towards their public character, bringing them under the ambit of Section 2(h). The Constitutional and legal provisions discussed herein above also point towards their character in public authorities," it said.