In its order today, a full bench of the Central Information Commission or CIC said that any written records can now be sought from any entity in a political party. Parties will have to appoint, within six weeks, officials to file RTI replies. They have also been ordered to share mandatory details under a voluntary disclosure section of the Act on their websites.
The RTI Act makes transparent all written records. So it will still be a challenge in getting records on political contributions of sums less than Rs 20,000, which parties are not required to maintain written records for. Most parties get a bulk of their contributions in multiple tranches of less than Rs 20,000. Parties like the BSP have stated that they get most of their funding through such small contributions.
Most parties are vehemently opposed to such a move and have argued that they are not government funded and are not public authorities and so should not be brought under the RTI Act, which seeks to make transparent all expenditure of public money and other details about public authorities that impact citizens.
The CIC has held today that political parties are "public authorities", have a "public character" and are "substantially funded by the government." It also holds that, "large tracts of land in prime areas of Delhi have been placed at the disposal of the political parties in question at exceptionally low rates. Besides, huge government accommodations have been placed at the disposal of political parties at hugely cheap rates thereby bestowing financial benefits on them."
The bench said that income tax exemptions granted to the parties and free air time on All India Radio and Doordarshan at the time of elections, also amount to indirect financing from the government.
And, it has argued 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."
On record, parties say they are open to such scrutiny. The Congress said today that it welcomed the CIC ruling and was ready to come under the RTI Act.
Today's order was made in response to a clutch of petitions filed by senior advocate and activist Prashant Bhushan and RTI activist Subhash Aggarwal among others. Mr Aggarwal had sought to get details of voluntary financial contributions received by six political parties, including the names and addresses of the donors. The parties refused saying they did not come under the RTI Act and Mr Aggarwal petitioned the CIC.
Prashant Bhushan described today's ruling as a landmark one and said, "Political parties being an important player in the business of government formation in the country and receiving various kinds of benefits and tax concessions from the government, certainly ought to be regarded as public authorities, and hence should be brought under RTI."
Political parties can go to court against the CIC order.