Right to political transparency

S. Madhusudhana Rao

The Supreme Court has once again proved that it is the country’s conscience-keeper by asking major political parties why they should not be brought under the ambit of Right to Information Act (RTI). So far, they have been claiming ‘immunity’ from disclosing their income from party donations and expenditure on polls insisting political parties are not ‘public authorities.’

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S. Madhusudhana Rao

However, on Tuesday, the apex court, acting on a petition filed by an NGO, the Association for Democratic Reforms, sought responses from the central government, the Election Commission and six main political parties, including the ruling BJP and opposition Congress, to the PIL. They have been given six weeks to file their replies.

The court’s move is significant considering the fact that when an ordinary person will be hounded if he fails to file income tax returns on time, political parties are allowed to get away without disclosing their funds and sources of their donations from individuals, business houses, etc. Clearly, this is an incongruity that should have been corrected long ago.

But, attempts made earlier had met with stiff resistance from parties themselves. They even had ignored a directive. Reasons are simple: No party wants its rivals to know how much funding it is getting, particularly at the time of elections, and how much it is spending on its candidates and electioneering. Moreover, since polls provide an opportune moment to utilize slush money, neither black-money suppliers nor spenders risk revealing their identities. Another argument against disclosing the names of beneficiaries and benefactors is rival parties’ donors could face harassment in the hands of winning party if their names are made public.

Such possibility can’t be ruled out in a country like India where political  favouritism and nepotism play pivotal roles in rewarding crucial supporters. But that can’t be a defence to keep away from accountability and probity in public life. Still, all major national and regional parties wear a veil of secrecy in matters of funding and spending.

In 2013, the Central Information Commission had made a major attempt to bring the parties within the purview of RTI by declaring them as public authorities. But, no party has complied with it nor CIC could act on the fiat as it is powerless in such matters. Now, the NGO has sought the apex court intervention to implement the CIC order and the issue is bound to trigger another spell of public debate on the need for transparency in political funding. The irony is, while India is touted as the largest democracy in the world, it works without political transparency. Its toxic effects on the polity could be felt in our daily life and in every part of the governing system.

Political corruption is all pervasive and its source is unaccounted for wealth.  It is a vicious circle in which money earned through kickbacks and stashed secretly will be spent in an equally sly manner. Again, every effort will be made to recover more than what is spent and the process goes on. Everyone, from politicians to public servants and people, knows it; but little has been done to end the scourge and make the election process finances a tad transparent.

While the often talked about poll reforms that include ways and means of funding aspirants for parliament and state legislatures may help redeem the situation, the fault lines lie in poll expenditure limits set for contestants and the money they spend. To secure victory, both parties and their candidates go to any length; money power becomes all the more important to gain political power even at village level.

Take, for example, 2014 elections to parliament and some state legislatures. The Election Commission had fixed poll expenditure for a Lok Sabha seat at Rs 70 lakhs (up from Rs 40 lakhs) and to an Assembly seat Rs 28 lakhs (revised from Rs 16 lakh). Even after increasing the expenditure limit, would it have been possible to carry out a campaign with less than a crore of rupees?

The poll expenditure limit for candidates was unrealistic and crores of rupees spent at that time by contestants – winners or losers — obviously came from slush funds, secret financiers and donors with undisclosed income. Unless black money channels are blocked and candidates’ poll spending is liberally increased and disclosures of parties’ income-expenditure details made mandatory, corrupt practices continue to thrive. Who bells the cat? Now, the ball is in the Supreme Court.

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