The historic Right to Information Act has once again been saved from going under the politician’s scalpel, proving that the law, designed for common citizens, is now truly owned by them. It was a classic David versus Goliath battle, with an army of ill-equipped RTI stakeholders ranged against the full might of the political class. Barring a handful of honourable exceptions, MPs cutting across party lines had closed ranks to override a decision of the Central Information Commission bringing political parties under the purview of the information law. But the only way to achieve this was to amend the Act, which the RTI community saw as the first, and perhaps not the last, attack on the hard-fought information regime.
Under the RTI Act, any organisation that receives substantial government assistance is a public authority. This makes the law applicable not only to the different wings of government but also to all NGOs sustained by government funding. Political parties argued, and with some merit, that they were voluntary associations outside the government and therefore not subject to the same level of public scrutiny.
One genuine area of concern arising from the CIC order related to disclosing internal, strategic decisions of parties. Political parties are peculiar in that they are neither part of government nor are they wholly outside of it, like NGOs. In their private space, parties compete with one another almost like entrepreneurs. This means they must be afforded privacy with regard to decisions that impact their winnability, such as choosing candidates, planning strategies, etc. So far so good, but the problem is the almost Machiavellian manipulation by political parties to stay out of any kind of accountability, including the most critical one of financial accountability, which they evade by reporting all or most donations to be under Rs. 20,000. This subterfuge allows even the mainstream parties to altogether escape scrutiny.
The Election Commission’s repeated requests to the Law Ministry to address this serious lacuna have so far gone unheeded. Against this backdrop, the drive to exempt parties from the RTI sends a message that politicians are a law unto themselves. The special status they have sought militates not only against the constitutional vision of equality but undermines democracy itself. If the ultimate objective of any political party is to form a government, it is a strange argument that the government itself should be accountable under the RTI but the party that forms it should not. People vote for political parties and they have a right to know who funds them, especially if big corporates are involved. Over to the Standing Committee, to which the Bill has now been referred.