The Central Information Commission's decision to bring political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information Act (RTI) has not gone down well with most parties, who are arguing that they are not public entities. Veenu Sandhu speaks with Jayaprakash Narayan, founder of Lok Satta party and a member of the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly, on the ramifications of the decision.
Will bringing political parties under RTI help, given that they are already expected to reveal details about their finances to the Income Tax department and the Election Commission?
Most of the recognised political parties are concealing details about their finances. Many of them don't even show as much as we - a fledgeling political party - do. (While donations above Rs 20,000 require PAN numbers and income tax details, for a lesser amount, neither the political party nor the donor has to certify anything. As a result, most political parties show that a large chunk of their income comes through donations up to Rs 20,000). The RTI Act is not a panacea for all these problems, but it will eventually make political parties more accountable. So I completely welcome it.
Besides the financials, what else will political parties be accountable for?
There will be a whole lot of things such as membership, the criterion for choosing candidates or restricting membership and even specifics of why a member has been punished or expelled from the party. People will get a better insight into cases like that of Somnath Chatterjee, a man of such stature, who was expelled from The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or that of P A Sangma and his daughter, Agatha (she had to resign as Union minister on the Nationalist Congress Party's directions, after she campaigned for her father in the presidential elections).
The issue of how a person has been appointed as leader in a party will also fall in its purview. Even a fledgeling democracy like Kenya has internal party elections. But our political parties are like private estates, fiefdoms or modern zamindaris.
Politicians fear that that all party discussions, strategy and reports, including those about organisational matters, will have to be made public as a result of RTI.
That is not the case. There is a difference between being transparent and being naked. I, along with Aruna Roy, was part of the panel that drafted the RTI Act. She had suggested that all deliberations of the cabinet meeting should be brought under it, but I had resisted that. Bring the right to know the decisions taken at the meeting under the Act, but not who said what to whom during the meeting. For example, for the Food Security Act, it is reasonable to ask that if you are committing a certain amount of money, where will it come from. But parties will not be expected to reveal their internal strategies. The Act will not curtail the freedom of the parties.
An argument is that even the media gets advertisement, and therefore funds, from the government. So should the media be brought under the RTI Act as well?
That cannot be considered public funding. The government placing an advertisement in a newspaper is not assistance. There is no tax exemption on the money that comes through government advertisements. The media is offering a service and the government is paying for it. That apart, I would like to see the media becoming more transparent about its policy, not strategy. There are times when a news story is carried about a company in which the media house has a stake and I have seen a disclosure being made alongside, which is a practice that needs to be encouraged.
Is the argument that political parties are not public entities justified?
A political party is a unique organisation that impacts the public exchequer. It seeks votes from the public and gets substantial indirect assistance from the government. For example, we were a movement once, but now we are a political party. A political party seeks the right to make policies and laws which impact the public. When we were drafting this Act, Roy and I desisted from bringing political parties under it because we knew it would face resistance in Parliament and wouldn't be allowed to be passed in that format. But bringing political parties under RTI is definitely necessary. Parties that are opposed to communicating openly and which say that people have no right to know what we are doing don't have the right to seek any privileges in a democracy.
Activists should, however, realise that this one Act is not a fantastic revolution that will change everything. Similarly, political parties should not be afraid of this Act. At the moment, there is exaggerated fear and exaggerated expectation.