On being asked questions through RTI on their largest donors and the manner of these donations by the Association for Democratic Reforms, all national political parties except for CPI declined to give the information
The thick skin of most of major political parties towards transparency and information dissemination was revealed yet again on Wednesday, 26th September, when most of them boycotted the hearing of the Central Information Commission (CIC) on the issue of whether political parties come under Right to Information (RTI). The full bench of the CIC comprising Satyananda Mishtra, Annupurna Dixit and ML Sharma was forced to keep the matter pending as only NCP and CPI were represented at the hearing, in the appeal made by RTI applicants Anil Bairwal and Subhas Chandra Agarwal. The CIC bench has given the general secretaries of the political parties one more chance to be present at the hearing, the date of which will be soon announced.
The CIC had asked the general secretaries of the All India Congress Committee, Bharatiya Janata Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Bahujan Samaj Party and Public Information Officer of the Election Commission of India to be present for the hearing on Wednesday. It had stated in its notice sent to all of them on 10th September that “the Commission has received three complaints—one from Anil Bairwal and two from Subhas Chandra Agarwal—against the various political parties for not supplying/for supplying incomplete information under the RTI Act, 2005. Some of the political parties in their replies to the complainants have claimed that they are not a “Public Authority” and as such they are not covered by the RTI Act 2005. Since the issues involved are serious and the decision in these cases can have wider implications, the commission has decided to place these cases before a Full Bench…’’
After the Association for Democratic Reforms’ (ADR) RTI application to the political parties in 2010, only the general secretary of the CPI, AB Bardhan replied that: “a) Yes. We are Public Authority under Section 2 (h)(d)(ii) “non-government organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government; and b) we have our internal appellate authority ‘Central Control Commission.’ The CPI also promptly provided a list of their largest donors, their addresses and the mode of payment of these donations.
Motilal Vora, general secretary of the All India Congress Committee replied that “…since the AICC does not come under the RTI Act your application along with postal order for Rs10 is returned herewith.’’ Hari Singh Kang, general secretary of CPI (M) replied that: “we are not a ‘Public Authority’ as per the provisions of the RTI Act. Hence, we are under no obligation to provide information sought for.’’ The BJP did not even bother to send a reply. Neither did BSP. NCP replied but said that it didn’t have enough man-power to provide the information asked for.
The information sought by ADR from the political parties was: “Sources of the 10 maximum voluntary contributions received by your party from financial year 2004-05 to financial year 2009-10; the modes of these donations (cheque, cash, DD, etc); the amount of these donations; the financial years in which these contributions were made; and sources/names of voluntary contributors along with their addresses who have made single contributions of more than Rs1 lakh to your party from financial year 2004-05 to financial year 2009-10.”
In July 2012, the ADR received information under the RTI Act, regarding the income and assets of six national parties and 36 regional political parties from the Election Commission and Income Tax authorities across the country. It had also simultaneously filed RTI applications to each of these political party offices seeking information from the six national parties, a list of the names of the donors and modes of payments of these donations. Both these RTI applications (the one to the EC and income tax authorities as well as to the political party offices) were filed in 2010. It has taken one and a half year for the bench of the CIC to call for the hearing.
Anil Bairwal, national co-ordinator for ADR who is crusading for making political party donations transparent elaborates on why they come under RTI Act since they are ‘substantially’’ financed by the government. He states: “It is common knowledge that the political parties get lot of benefits and facilities from various government departments. Political parties get substantially financed by a very large amount by getting tax exemption on all their income. In addition, all the major political parties have been also provided facilities for residential and official use by Directorate of Estates (DoE). They have been given offices and accommodations at prime locations like Akbar road, Raisina Road, Chanakyapuri, etc and are charged only a token of money as rent or dues. These facilities are not just provided to them at marginal rates but their maintenance, upgradation, modernisation, renovation and construction is also done at state expense. A large amount of money is also spent by Election Commission of India on political parties for giving electoral rolls.’’
He further states: “Doordarshan and AIR also provide free broadcast facilities to the political parties. If closely seen, the money spent on that basis actually runs in crores of rupees. State funding is also given for publicity of political parties during elections. It is indeed very surprising that the political parties who at one end claim to work under transparent and people-centric manner have flatly refused to work in such a fashion.’’
The press release of ADR stated that: “the leaders of all political parties publically maintain that they are committed to transparency and probity in the functioning of political parties. However, when it comes to the implementation, their behavior is completely opposite. These replies bring to the fore the biggest
farce that our democracy is plagued with—the opaque functioning of political parties with no space for engagement with the citizens and no willingness to open themselves to public scrutiny.’’
Association for Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch in 2008 had also won the CIC judgement making I-T returns and contribution reports of political parties available in the public domain. Even at that time all political parties had opposed to part with this information. CIC had, however, directed the Income Tax authorities to make this information public as there was huge public interest in the information.
Analysis of the replies showed that the top five political parties with the highest total income between 2004-05 and 2010-11 (last seven years) are: Congress with Rs 2,008 crore followed by BJP: Rs994 crore, BSP: Rs484 crore, CPM: Rs417 crore and SP: Rs279 crore.. The ADR also found from this information that majority of the money comes from donations, however; the names of donors formed a small percentage on the official record.
The Act defines public authorities thus:
h) “public authority” means any authority or body or institution of self government established or constituted,—
(a) by or under the Constitution ;
(b) by any other law made by Parliament;
(c) by any other law made by State Legislature;
(d) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate government,
and includes any--
(i) body owned, controlled or substantially financed;
(ii) non-government organisation substantially financed,
directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government;”
(Vinita Deshmukh is the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte. She can be reached at [email protected].)
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