Rs 6,00,00,00,00,000 was the amount of money that was spent by political parties in the Lok Sabha election in 2019. In order to understand how big the amount is, around Rs 100 crore was spent per constituency and Rs 700 per vote. The expenditure by parties in 2019 Lok Sabha election doubled from what it was during the 2014 Lok Sabha election. In 1998, Rs 9000 crore was spent on elections, where 2 decades later in 2019, Rs 60,000 crore was spent. Is there any mechanism which makes political parties accountable while they deal with such huge amount of money? No.
This is exactly why the need for transparency has increased in recent times and in order to usher transparency with regards to the source(s) and spending of this amount, political parties need to be brought within the ambit of RTI Act.
Political Party, RTI Act, Funds, Accountability, Expenditure, Sources, Election.
THE SOCIAL DISTANCE BETWEEN FUNDS OF POLITICAL PARTIES AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Elections in Indian democracy have always involved a handsome proportion of money. Since political parties bond the citizens and the government together and act as a source of communication between them, they end up playing a very significant role in the entire process. Democracy, in the end, comes down to choices and choices need to be credible thus there needs to be accountability in the functioning of the political parties.
The political parties, currently, are not answerable to anyone and they publish their funds and expenditure as per their discretion. Shifting them within the ambit of the RTI Act will make them more accountable and liable. Political parties, generally, have contrasting views on several issues, but when it comes to opposing RTI Act, they all are unanimous in it and there is a very strong harmony among them.
The purpose of the RTI Act was to usher in transparency in the administration of various Public Authorities and to impart depth to the public responsive functioning of the Government and its various agencies. The thrust for the right to information, a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Constitution, emerged predominantly due to the government’s failure to prevent corruption and to ensure effective and empathetic governance. Thus, it has become a significant tool to ensure transparency in most of the Government institutions that are working for the benefit of the people of the country. The RTI Act asks for accountability and transparency of a phenomenal nature.
The Law Commission and Election Commission have recommended that political parties should adopt measures to promote transparency and accountability in their activities. The only possible solution for this is to bring political parties within the ambit of the RTI Act.
The Supreme Court has time and again ruled in favour of the citizen’s right to know. In State of UP vs Raj Narain (1975), the court held that right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) encompassed the right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way and by their public functionaries.
In S.P. Gupta vs UOI and Anr, the Supreme Court reiterated that right to know is implicit in right of free speech and expression. Further, in People’s Union of Civil Liberties vs Union of India, the right to information had been hoisted to the status of a human right.
In the broader horizon under Article 21, the right to information has been held to be a basic right. Holding that the right to life has reached new dimensions and urgency, the Supreme Court in Reliance Petrochemicals Ltd. v. Proprietors of Indian Express Newspapers, observed that if the democracy had to function effectively, people must have a right to know and to obtain information about the conduct of affairs of the State.
In a government of responsibility like ours, it is elementary that citizens ought to know what their government is doing. They have the right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their pubic functionaries. No democratic government can survive without accountability and the fundamental postulate of accountability is that people should be aware of information related to the functioning of the government.
The rationality supporting the inclusion of political parties under the RTI Act is the cardinal role being played by the political parties in our democratic setup and the nature of duties performed by them, which ultimately reflects their public character, bringing them within the ambit of section 2(h) of the RTI Act.
Section 2(h) of the RTI Act provides that in addition to the government bodies, those organizations should also come under RTI that fulfill the eligibility mentioned in 2(h)(d)(i) or 2(h)(d)(ii) :
2(h) “public authority” means any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted—
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;
Political parties can be declared to be a public authority as they are directly or indirectly funded by the government. The government funds the political parties indirectly in the following ways:
- By allotting land in Delhi as well as the state capital, either, free of cost, or at concessional rates.
- Directorate of Estate has often allotted bungalows to political parties in Delhi at highly concessional rates.
- The Union Government furnishes total tax exemption to political parties under section 13A of the Income Tax Act 1961.
- In the course of elections, political parties are given airtime slots on Doordarshan and All India Radio free of cost.
- Via Taxation Law (Amendment) Act 1978, political parties were not charged income tax from various sources of income, which was further extended by the Finance Act, 2003.
Public resources, in large quantum, are given to political parties and they are an integral stakeholder in the arena of democracy, thus their accounts must be available in the public domain.
The Central Information Commission (CIC) on 3rd June 2013 declared six national political parties, namely the INC, BJP, CPI(M), CPI, NCP and BSP to be “public authorities” under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, but none of the parties complied with the order, thereby leading to many activists approaching the court for non-compliance with this order. CIC’s order is binding under section 19(7) of the RTI Act. The Supreme Court in Namit Sharma vs Union of India held that “An order passed by the Commission is final and binding and can only be questioned before the High Court or the Supreme Court in exercise of the Court’s jurisdiction under Article 226 and/or 32 of the Constitution, respectively.”
It is sophistry to think that transparency is virtuous for the bureaucracy, but not needed for the political parties which command those bureaucracies. It will again make little to no sense to believe that transparency is needed for the organs of the state but not for political parties, which, in reality, controls all the vital organs of the state. Thereby, complete particulars of all donors along with their donations must be within easy reach of the general public for scrutiny under the RTI Act. It should further be taken into consideration that the finances of political parties are available in the public domain in various countries such as United Kingdom, Germany, United States of America, Australia, Japan, and Philippines. In more than 40 under-developed, developing, and developed countries, it is mandatory for the political parties to put its finance in the public domain. Thus it is high time that we get an electoral reform and that the political parties at all level must fall under the purview of the RTI Act and shall disclose its accounts
According to a report published by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an election watchdog, National parties collected Rs 11,234 crore in donation from unknown sources from 2004-05 to 2018-19. If we dig deeper into the analysis of this report by ADR, we will find how the expenditure of these parties has significantly increased year after year, and how they don’t spend the whole of the funds received on campaigns and other electoral processes. The BJP increased its income by 134.59% from 2017-18 to 2018-19. The INC on the other hand had an increase of 360.97% in its total income. Incomes of other national parties increased in the same fashion. The most striking feature of this report was the quantum of money which was not spent directly on elections. In between 2018-19, BJP had 58.29%, INC had 48.81%, TMC had 94.03%, CPI(M) had 24.57%, BSP had 29.96%, and CPI had 19.02% of its total income not spent on elections. So where was all this money spent? This is where transparency plays a significant part. The only feasible way to make this aspect transparent is to bring parties under the purview of the RTI Act. The reason why political parties must be held accountable for the expenditure is because, a lot of this money is spent to buy votes and offer other freebies to voters and thereby undermining the main purpose of the electoral process as a whole.
This implies how parties have a free hand to procure money for themselves and the general public is absolutely clueless as to its source. Big corporates have donated heavily to the parties and thereby have increased its significance in the electoral process. It is apprehended that the corporates derive benefits when the party comes to power so it works like a quid pro quo arrangement between the corporates and the political parties.
In 2017, electoral bonds were introduced by the Central Government. The Finance Act, 2017 amended various laws, including the Representation of the People (RP) Act, 1951, the Income Tax Act,1961 as well as the Companies Act,2013. The amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1951 immunes the political parties from providing details to the Election Commission regarding the funds received through the electoral bonds. This makes it impossible for the Election Commission to deduce whether the donations were received illegally by the political parties and coupled with the removal of the cap on foreign funding it prevents EC from having a check on the source of funding. It is ironic how most of the parties have expressed their displeasure towards the electoral bonds scheme yet they continue to receive funds through it. Changes were made in the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act of 2010, which exempted foreign funds received by political parties from scrutiny.
It is often argued that political parties submit their financial details to the ECI. Delhi Legislative Assembly Election was held in February 2020. As of November 2020, only 3 national parties and 2 state parties out of the 15 contesting parties have submitted their election expenditure report for the Delhi election. So where is the accountability?
It is as plain as a pikestaff that national political parties have for a prolonged period been resisting the RTI Act to camouflage obscurities in their sources of funding. This would require nothing less revolutionary than the RTI Act to control the current situation and to protect the autonomy of the political parties. Thus the funds of the political parties must be brought within the purview of RTI Act.
As stated earlier, the role of money in elections in India has constantly increased in a very steep manner. Money is used not just for election campaigns but also to lure voters and since the source of a major chunk of this money is not known, the parties after winning the election, repay it in some way or the other to the donors. The party in power ends up compromising with governance by enacting pro-corporate policies. The only way to overcome this menace is to make the parties accountable to the general public by bringing them within the jurisdiction of the RTI Act. This will ensure that both the source as well the spending of the money is open for scrutiny and will thereby keep a check on the political parties.