Even RTI radar may not be enough to cleanse political rot

Political parties, who have long been used to operating in an opaque landscape, have been dragged kicking and screaming into the glare of public scrutiny following the order of the Central Information Commission on Monday directing them to subject themselves to the provisions of the Right to Information Act.

The activists, at whose initiative the landmark order from the CIC was given, have rightly pointed out that the order will have beneficial long-term effects on the political landscape. Subhash Chandra Agarwal said that the order would have "far-reaching impact on accountability in the political system, which is currently polluted by corruption."

The order observed that the six big political parties were "public authorities" - to the extent that they are "substantially financed" by the Central government. They additionally enjoyed access to prime real estate and broadcast time, all of which drew from the public exchequer, and to that extent, the parties are accountable to the general public.

Cleaner politics? Don't hold your breath. AFP

Cleaner politics? Don't hold your breath. AFP

"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 in the ambit of section 2(h) of the RTI Act," the order observed.

The six big political parties - the Congress, the BJP, the CPI, the CPI(M), the NCP and the BSP - have six weeks to respond to the CIC order, but already the first stirrings of unease are discernible.

BJP spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi claimed that since the political parties declared their assets and other details before the Election Commission, perhaps that constitutional body should decide on the issue of whether any additional public accountability criteria needed to be invoked.

CPI leader D Raja claimed that political parties do not come under the purview of the RTI Act, nor were they public authorities. "However, we are transparent and accountable to the people on a voluntary basis."

The Congress did not immediately respond to the order, stating that it needed to study it in greater detail, but it is easy to imagine the disquiet that its leaders will feel about going public with intimate details of the sources of its funds.

It's a fair bet that these parties will fight every inch of the way to resist the efforts to hold them to a higher degree of accountability. Openness can be disconcerting for parties that are used to working in the shadowy zones of political funding. And clearly the parties haven't quite reconciled themselves to the nature of the changing landscape where public bodies must hold themselves to higher standards of transparency than has been the norm so far.

But as welcome as the CIC order is, the effectiveness of these measures will be severely tested by the cussedness of the political parties and their resistance to reform. As has been evident from the public discourse on, for instance, the Lokpal Bill, the parties seek common ground on matters that are markedly in the public interest, but where their interests are seen to be compromised. On matters of political reform, virtually all of them have ganged up to resist much-needed reform measures, merely in order to protect their interests.

For instance, even today, the ceiling on election related expenditure, determined by the Election Commission, is egregiously violated in the full glare of the public. The Election Commission is notionally equipped to penalise, even disbar, parties that are in blatant violation of election laws. But the reality on the ground is that parties have been known to get away with it. And, in fact, there is an ongoing effort to clip the Election Commission's wings in the matter.

It's worth bearing this in mind before we get all excited about the CIC order of Monday. Political parties, as they have repeatedly demonstrated, are artful dodgers of virtually every reasonable law aimed at opening them up to public scrutiny, and given the near-unanimity that exists among them on these matters, the efficacy of the order isn't a certainty.

Just how lightly the parties take the CIC was evident in their response - or the lack therof - to the CIC's notice sent out in November last year asking for details of land leased out to them and the rent they paid on it. Only two of the parties responded. The NCP wrote back to say that since it did not fall under the purview of the RTI Act, it did not feel the need to furnish the information that had been sought. Only one party - the CPI(M) - responded with the details.

In other words, none of the other parties even deigned to respond to the CIC, and even one that did failed to furnish the details. When such is the blase attitude they maintain towards the CIC, the prospects of their submitting themselves to the full scrutiny of the public don't look too bright.