Democracy is the form of governance ‘By the people, of the people for the people’ and politicians represent the causes and concerns of common people. Political parties seek to represent the people and to take decisions on their behalf. But in India they have so far resisted attempts to be listed as “public authorities” under the Right to Information Act and thus be made liable to publicly disclose financial assets. With the Supreme Court now asking six national parties why they should not be brought under the RTI, India is a step closer to making its political organisations accountable in their financial transactions. In conducting their financial affairs in an opaque manner, some parties have been able to hide their sources of funding, and the extent of their assets and financial holdings. When the Central Information Commission tried to bring them under the ambit of the RTI, the previous United Progressive Alliance government actually considered amending the Act to nullify the order. Indeed, political parties have neither challenged the CIC’s order nor complied with it. But in March this year, the CIC reiterated its order as final and binding, even as it admitted it was unable to act against the parties that had not replied to its notices and had ignored its order. Similarly, the Election Commission, which is a party to the case before the Supreme Court, has been unable to check financial irregularities among political parties; it does not have either the ability or the mandate to verify the claims of ‘donations’ made to political parties. Although parties have to declare to the Election Commission all donations in excess of Rs.20,000 they receive, they resort to under-reporting to evade this clause. Most of the donations are shown as having come in smaller sums.
Donations to political parties are not always voluntary, and in any case the donors — big businesses and corporate houses — get favours in return when the parties they fund come to power. Most of the donations are made illegally, through off-the-books transactions, and the parties repay their benefactors in terms of policy concessions or amendments to rules. Business houses often strike deals with political parties, which result in acts of corruption when they get into government. Indeed, many business houses support more than one party, extending donations both legally and illegally as black money. Thus, requiring political parties to open up their financial transactions, the donations they receive and the expenses they incur, to public scrutiny is imperative to bring down levels of corruption and make them more accountable. What the CIC was unable to achieve since the implementation of the RTI, the Supreme Court should be able to do. As was argued in the petition before the court, the right to information has been held to be a part of the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. That freedom cannot be undermined.