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Freedom of Information to include political parties

Should freedom of information legislation cover political parties? The question is currently in a stalemate between Indian courts and politicians. Journalists and wob activists push for more transparency on party funding. 


Last May the Indian Information Commissioner decided that Indian parties indeed are subject to the Indian Right to Information act. However the parties decided not to follow the ruling, instead in August 2013 the parties tabled a bill to change the freedom of information law: Parties were to be exempted. After the Indian election on May 16th the bill will have to be readdressed, according to prominent Right to Information journalist Shyamlal Yadav of the Indian Express.

The Indian Right to Information legislation is young and jumped immediately to wide transparency including data and including parties, driven forward by journalists and anti-corruption activists. While Europe was busy pondering its institutional structures in the course of the 2000es, India pushed ahead.

Starting in 2002 with a landmark ruling by the highest court, candidates now must provide information about their educational background, criminal cases against them as well as assets and liabilities of themselves, their spouses and dependents.

The 2002 ruling, however, was not the last step. One of the most prominent Indian WoB-journalists, Shymalal Yadav, compiled a chronology of the developments (see below). The 2005 Right to Information Law provides for a strong Central Information Commissioner body, which in 2008 ordered the disclosure of political parties’ tax return sheets. Since none of these were above the limit for mentioning names of 20.000 INR (about €250), journalists and activists demanded more documents – and in May 2013 the Information Commissioner indeed ruled that yes, political parties are to be considered public bodies and thus are subject to the Right To Information law.
Read below the full chronology including links to court records and journalistic reports compiled by Shyamlal Yadav of the Indian Express 


Towards transparency in functioning of political parties in India - a chronology

By Shyamlal Yadav


The new millennium brought many initiatives for transparency in elections and the life of elected representatives in India. Thanks to the interference from Supreme Court many changes were adopted in the rules and procedures related to electoral politics, functioning of parliamentarians and ministers and much more. With the enactment of Right to Information (RTI) Act the involvement of ordinary citizen, social activists and media became more positive to bring those changes. A glimpse of the journey of transparency in politics in India:


1. Supreme Court order of 2002: In a landmark judgment the Supreme Court directed that electorate has every right to know the credentials and back ground, educational background of the candidates so Election Commission of India issued fresh directions for nominations for Parliament and State Assemblies that every candidate has to file the details of his educational background, details of criminal cases against the if any and the details of assets and liabilities of the candidate, their spouse and dependents. So this is now a reality and all these affidavits and declarations of subsequent elections are open in public domain as soft copy for anybody who wants to know it.


2. The Central Information Commission order of 2008: Central Information Commission (CIC) directed that Income Tax Returns filed by political parties will be disclosed under RTI Act to the applicants. This order of the CIC  was not challenged and many ordinary citizen, media men and RTI activists started getting ITR copies of political parties. Major findings from these analysis was that majority of the donation to the parties comes through undisclosed sources. Though the parties are supposed to disclose the name of donor for the amount which had been received more than Rs. 20,000 as a single amount. But an analysis of the ITRs filed by major parties by this correspondent shows that many parties have given affidavits that they did not receive any single amount for more than Rs. 20,000. This order of CIC paved the way for other reforms.


3. CIC order of June, 2013: After the message was spread in country that parties do not disclose the name of donors. It is understood that grey area of political donation is among the various forms of use of black money not only in India but in other countries as well. Many RTI activists started demanding the list of donors of parties. But their hands were tied as the political parties were not considered as Public Authority under the definition given in RTI Act-2005. So, when the activists filed the applications those were denied. When battle reached to the CIC, the order was delivered on June 3, 2013 in favor of transparency. The CIC found the parties as “substantially funded” by the government on various counts and declared them as Public Authorities and directed to appoint Information Officers.


This order was not challenged by the parties in higher court but it was not implemented as well. Rather parties chosen to amend the RTI Act. Finally the Bill to amend RTI Act to nullify the CIC order was introduced in August 2013 in parliament and it was referred to a committee which recommended that parties should remain out from the purview of RTI Act.


But the bill was not listed in Budget Session of parliament. One reason behind the not-listing of the bill in budget is considered that country was gearing for General Election for parliament and general perception of the electorate was that parties are reluctant to transparency. Now the applicants have filed complaints against the parties for not implementing the order despite passing so much time and that is consideration before the CIC. It is yet unclear which view the newly elected parliament will take the view of the pending Bill. If the CIC order on political parties is implemented, India would be third such country with Access to Information Act of Poland enacted in 2002 and Right to Information Act of Nepal implemented in 2007, have included political parties under their acts.

Brigitte Alfter


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