Parties cry foul

Published : Jun 12, 2013 12:30 IST

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram of the Congress.

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram of the Congress.

ALMOST all political parties have expressed their apprehensions about the impact of the Central Information Commission (CIC) order, if it goes unchallenged. The Communist Party of India (CPI), which had initially taken the stand that political parties were “public authorities” under the Right to Information Act, has changed its view, saying such an interpretation will undermine the object of the Act, which is to make the government accountable. Its national secretary, D. Raja, blamed the bureaucrats (who are members of the CIC) for this mischievous interpretation, which he said would result in diluting the object of the Act.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is equally apprehensive. It felt that opponents of a political party could now use the Act as a political tool. The CIC, however, said that the possibility of misuse of the Act could not be a ground for its non-application. The CPI(M) believes that the decision betrayed a fundamental misconception about the role of political parties in a parliamentary democracy and apprehends that it will hamper the functioning of a political party. The party asked the government to discuss the issues arising from the decision with all parties in order to preserve the integrity and role of parties in a democratic system.

Janata Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav felt the CIC order treated political parties as though they were retail shops. Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said it was an unusual interpretation of the Act and not based on credible argument. Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari had problems with what he saw as the CIC’s attempts to stretch the scope of the Act. Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, did not totally oppose the CIC order but hinted that other organisations that benefited from the government in many ways also had to be covered under the RTI Act. Another BJP leader, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, wondered whether political parties would now be accountable to both the Election Commission and the CIC and added that this confusion was not good for democracy. The party’s spokesperson, Nirmala Sitharaman, wanted the E.C. to clear the confusion about the overlapping powers of the E.C. and the CIC with regard to the functioning of political parties.

The government seems likely to appeal against the order in the High Court or amend the Act itself to keep political parties outside the purview of the Act. The debate, therefore, is set to continue.

Complainant clarifies

In response to the apprehensions expressed by the political parties on the CIC’s verdict, the complainant, Subhash Chandra Agrawal, made the following points.

•Section 8(1) with 10 sub-clauses under the RTI Act which mention exemptions from disclosure of information will provide sufficient powers to political parties for denying information.

•Political parties can also use Section 7(9) of the RTI Act, which empowers public authorities to decline any information.

•Political parties can suo motu declare maximum information on their websites under Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act to avoid a large number of RTI petitions coming to them. Even for future, they can update their websites accordingly on the basis of information most sought under the RTI Act.

•The RTI Act will make political parties accountable to the public and not to the Central Information Commission.

The CIC will have a role to play only when the petitioner files an appeal with the CIC after crossing two initial stages, including a first appeal filed with the appellate authority appointed by the political party against the response given by the public information officer of the party. There is no supervisory or disciplinary role of the CIC under the RTI Act.

•The RTI Act provides for only giving information that is materially available on record. Verbal deliberations within party forums cannot be termed material available on record unless there is a provision to get it recorded in audio or video. Since there is no practice of recording such deliberations within party forums, the apprehension about disclosure of strategic deliberations is baseless.

•The RTI Act does not provide for giving reasoning of any decisions taken or queries put in the form of “why”. Therefore, doubts that questions will be asked on aspects like selection of candidates are misconceived.

•The RTI Act is not applicable to private retail shops; therefore, the comparison of political parties to retail shops is contrary to facts.

V. Venkatesan

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