Political parties under RTI: Why the CIC's decision doesn't do much

It is easy to celebrate the Central Information Commission's order making political parties liable under the Right to Information Act. Barring a few instances of transparency, the parties have long been allowed to function as per their whims with sources of funding, choice of candidates, the formation of alliances and other political functions taking place internally with little explanation for why those decisions were taken.

It is this very functioning of political parties that the CIC seems to be targeting when it brought them under the RTI and in its order noted:

The Political Parties select some problems as more urgent than others and present solutions to them which may be acceptable to the citizens. The ruling party draws its development programs on the basis of its political agenda. It is responsible for the growth and development of the society and the nation. Political Parties affect the lives of citizens, directly or indirectly, in every conceivable way and are continuously engaged in performing public duty. It is, therefore, important that they became accountable to the public.

However, in an analysis of the CIC's order in today's Indian Express Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out that despite our mistrust of political parties and the manner in which they function they can't suddenly be brought under the RTI, a law which essentially oversees public bodies.

Will bringing political parties under RTI help? Naresh Sharma/ Firstpost

Will bringing political parties under RTI help? Naresh Sharma/ Firstpost

He argues what the CIC has done is made political parties accountable to them, rather than the voters and if the law governing political parties and their functioning is to be changed, it should be lawmakers who do it in a functioning democracy.

Bhanu argues the CIC's logic of deciding a political party is a flawed one because by that logic any organisation the state supports or backs in any way becomes a public body.

Taking a line of argument similar to what one of the political litigants in the case argued before the CIC, the columnist says:

I may have views on how political parties should be run; most of them would benefit by being more democratic. But it jeopardises freedom of association if we think all internal decisions of parties should be subject to some form of legal or public scrutiny. The order may pave the way for far-reaching interference in the internal affairs of parties.

It is difficult to agree with Bhanu when he says that the RTI may have far reaching interference in the internal workings of a party. Whether a party would change the manner in which it functions purely because they are under the RTI is a little hard to believe, but the other points he makes are very valid.

By bringing the political parties under the RTI, the CIC has merely created another power centre that would be  watching over political parties and passing comment on them. They will not be able to change the manner in which they function or how they take their decisions.

A simple example is the case of Gujarat MP Vitthal Radadia, who made national headlines when he was caught on a CCTV threatening a hapless toll booth employee with a gun last year, despite having a reputation that was less that savoury. He switched parties from the Congress to the BJP, which welcomed him despite the pending criminal cases, and yesterday romped home to victory again, as he has since 1990.

In the case of Radadia everyone knew of his criminal cases and his wealth, he declared it himself in his affidavit to the Election Commission. Current Election Commission rules already prescribe how much a candidate can spend, its the enforcement that doesn't take place in time. The funding of his campaign, traditionally would take place with black money, which again is unaccounted for and wouldn't have been disclosed on the party's books. The BJP took him in with open arms because they knew he had the support of enough groups to win. Whether monitored by RTI or not, someone like a Radadia would perhaps have won anyway.

RTI cannot change the way political parties function, they universally work behind a curtain of secrecy. We cannot ever hope to find ideal logic in the manner in which candidates are chosen, why decisions are taken and why others aren't. The most we can hope for is a disclosure of the funding of political parties, which may  reveal a little behind the hidden hand behind decisions, but that would require an amendment to an already existing law and not be through the RTI.

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