PM’s green signal for transparency in political affairs? Parties must comply with RTI Act

rti2By Venkatesh Nayak*

Addressing a meeting of the national executive of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which concluded recently in New Delhi, the Hon’ble Prime Minister is reported to have declared: “People have a right to know where our funds are coming from.” Media reports indicate that the Central Government may be working on a legislation to make the source of funding of all political parties more transparent. An economic resolution reportedly adopted at this meeting endorsed the Hon’ble PM’s appeal for transparency in political party funding, particularly election campaign financing. While this resolution itself is not available on the BJP’s official website, the salient features containing the Hon’ble PM’s transparency call to the party are uploaded there.

Celebrating the 41st anniversary of the judicial recognition of people’s right to know

These path breaking public statements have come less than 20 days before the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s finding about the people’s fundamental right to know.

More than four decade ago, on 24th January, 1975, a five-member Constitution Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court ruled that the people’s right to know was implied within the meaning and scope of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution [State of Uttar Pradesh vs Raj Narain & Ors., AIR 1975 SC 865]. While disposing a petition seeking disclosure of the contents of the “Blue Book” containing instructions for ensuring the security of the then Prime Minister, Ms. Indira Gandhi, Justice K K Mathew explained the important of the people’s right to know in the following words:

“74. In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything, that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. The right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary, when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can, at any rate, have no repercussion on public security. To cover with veil secrecy the common routine business, is not in the interest of the public. Such secrecy can seldom be legitimately desired. It is generally desired for the purpose of parties and politics or personal self-interest or bureaucratic routine. The responsibility of officials to explain and to justify their acts is the chief safeguard against oppression and corruption.” 

Although the late Shri Raj Narain who lost the parliamentary bye-election from Allahabad contesting against the Late Ms. Gandhi, pressed his demand for openness on the Government of India, the Apex Court’s opinion about transparency in public life can be extended to all public transactions including those involving political parties without losing the basic principle, namely, the people’s right to know everything that is done in a public way. This includes the collection of and accounting for donations received by political parties.

BJP’s silence on RTI about donations received and deposited in 2016

On 10th November, two days after the Central Government announced its decision to demonetise all currency notes of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 denomination, some opposition leaders accused the West Bengal State Unit of the BJP of allegedly depositing large sums of money in its bank account. They charged the party with having prior knowledge of the demonetisation decision that the Government apparently kept a secret until it was officially announced by the Hon’ble PM in his address to the nation. According to media reports, the President of the BJP’s WB State Unit is said to have claimed that all donations were properly receipted and available for verification.

Attaching a copy of this press clipping, on 14th November, 2016, I sent the following RTI application to the Central Public Information Officer of the BJP through Shri Ram Madhav, General Secretary, BJP:

“At the outset, I would like to congratulate your party, being the main constituent of the National Democratic Alliance Government, for taking the bold step of ensuring the demonetisation of high value currency notes of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 denomination. I have enclosed a media report published today about a statement purportedly made by one of your party functionaries, that copies of all receipts issued against cash received by your party from the public in the form of donations are available with your party for verification.

Pursuant to the order of the Central Information Commission in the matter of Subhash Chandra Aggarwal and Anr. vs Bharatiya Janata Party & Ors., in case Nos. CIC/SM/C/2011//001386 and CIC/SM/C/2011/000838, dated 3rd June, 2013, holding your party as a public authority under the RTI Act, I would like to obtain the following information from your party, under the RTI Act:

1)    A clear photocopy of all receipts issued by your party against cash donations received form any member of the public or any institution or organisation from 01 January, 2016 till date; 

2)    A clear photocopy of the counterfoils of all bank deposit slips maintained by your party as evidence of cash deposited in your designated bank accounts, across the country from 01 January, 2016 till date;

3)    A clear photocopy of all correspondence made by your party with any authority in the Government of India, relating to the issue of demonetisation of high value currency notes that was done on 08/09 November, 2016.”

Apart from seeking details of donations received and deposited I wanted to know whether the BJP had made any formal representation  to the Central Government prior to or after the demonetisation decision was announced on the subject. Surely, as the largest national party in the Lok Sabha, the BJP would have formally conveyed some views to the Central Government before or after the demonetisation exercise, on that subject.

The RTI application was delivered to the national Head Office of the BJP on the 16th of November. Let alone send a reply, the BJP has not even acknowledged receipt of this RTI application till date. The RTI application, the news clipping and the proof of their delivery are in the attachment.

All six national political parties are non-compliant with the RTI Act

In June 2013, the Central Information Commission (CIC) declared six national political parties (BJPINCCPICPI-MBSP and NCP), public authorities under The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). All these parties including the BJP have not complied with the directions of the CIC. The CIC’s decision and a detailed history of this case of non-compliance are available on the website of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) which is spearheading the civil society initiative for transparency in the working of all political parties.

Three Information Commissioners are currently hearing multiple cases regarding non-compliance of these six national political parties with their June 2013 order. The aggrieved RTI applicants – Mr. Subhash Chandra Agarwal and ADR have also filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) suit in the Supreme Court regarding this non-compliance. Both cases have seen slow progress.

All six political parties have hired a battery of lawyers – young and old, who are raising minor technical matters before the CIC in hearing after hearing instead of accepting their obligations under the RTI Act. Till date, only one RTI complainant has completed his verbal arguments before the CIC. ADR and I have filed Intervention Applications in this case. The next date of hearing in this case is not announced yet.

Given the current demonetisation exercise and the weak provisions in the Representation of the People Act, 1951, for enforcing transparency in party-funding, the RTI Act provides the best solution for all political parties to become transparent. There is no need to reinvent the wheel for the six national political parties. They are already public authorities under the RTI Act. None of them has challenged the CIC’s order before any court of law. The UPA Government’s Bill to insulate all political parties at the national and the State level from the RTI Act lapsed with the dissolution of the 14th Lok Sabha in May 2014. So there is no legal obstacle for the six national political parties to lead the way for other State level political parties towards transparency.

Will the BJP live up to its tallest leader’s vision of transparency and lead by example as desired is a question every citizen should ask. They can embark on this exercise by appointing CPIOs and first appellate authorities under the RTI Act and disclose their organisational details and funding and spending in accordance with Section 4(1) of the Act.

The Hon’ble PM has shown the green signal for greater transparency in political affairs. Will the Raths of all political parties move in this direction remains to be seen.

*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi

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