I have seen a lot of people criticize Government of India’s submission to the Supreme Court that political parties cannot be brought under the purview of Right to Information (RTI) act. I endorse the stance taken by the Government, and my reasons (which may be different from the Government’s, with slight overlap) are discussed here. First of all, RTI act applies only to a public authority or, in other words, a body of government. Political parties are not government authorities, nor funded by the taxpayer. They are formed by groups of like-minded individuals and funded by their well-wishers, as is the case with charitable organizations. While they need to maintain the level of transparency as required by other existing or proposed laws (such as the money spent on elections, donations received and details of donors), citizens in general cannot claim a right to know everything that goes within a party. This is why I believe that bringing political parties under RTI is a flawed approach to improving transparency in political space.
If India had a two-party system in which it was impossible for a person to float their own political party and challenge existing ones, it might have made sense for these political parties to be brought under RTI because they would then be more or less like constitutional bodies.
However, In a multi-party system, no party is being forced upon the people, and so no party should be required to inform all people in the country of how they operate. For example, there is no need for a party to make publicly available, the list of candidates contesting for an internal post or the process which is followed to elect its office-bearers, which are internal affairs of the party. If somebody doesn’t like the way the party is being run, they can decide to not vote for that party, join another of the numerous parties that already exist, or even float their own party.
Increasing transparency in political parties is not to be achieved through legislation, but by people insisting on more transparency from the parties that they support, and by voting out parties that fail to honor this expectation. In my opinion, transparency on internal working of a party is much less important when compared to how they run the government and contribute to nation-building. So I will give less weightage to transparency when deciding who to vote for. Those who accord it paramount importance can decide to not vote for parties which refuse to disclose certain details which they want to know. Now, if it is found that it would be beneficial for the society if all political parties disclose a particular detail, there can be a separate law mandating the publishing of that data.
This is similar to how there is a requirement for candidates in an election to furnish details of their wealth, rather than bringing all candidates under the ambit of RTI. I don’t think there should be any coercion for political parties to open themselves up to endless public scrutiny on their internal affairs. RTI is a powerful tool in the hands of citizens to extract important information from Government and its various arms, thereby improving transparency and accountability.
At the same time, it is one of the most misused tools. There are several petitions filed under RTI which request for trivial information, retrieving which consumes considerable effort of government employees which can ideally be utilized in a better way. If political parties are brought under RTI, they would have to employ additional manpower to accept and respond to the flood of queries that will follow, putting an unnecessary strain on their resources. This effort is virtually unbounded (depending purely on the number of different queries raised), and is another reason why RTI for political parties is a bad idea.
If, on the other hand, the Government comes out with a list of details that all political parties are needed to publish periodically, they will be able to meet this requirement with a fixed, predictable effort.
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