Crashing the party
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Holding back the RTI amendment is not the best way to address public concerns about party finance.
There has been great civil society uproar over the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013, which aims to extricate political parties from mandatory public disclosures, and nullify the Central Information Commission's recent order. While passing the amendment would have been all too easy, given the broad political consensus, a last-minute turnaround in Parliament has led to the bill being referred to a standing committee. This could be seen as an image-preserving exercise, a signal that Parliament is not determined to pass an amendment seen to be self-serving by ignoring all dissenting voices. In all probability, this backing away comes from an acknowledgement of the current mood of middle-class impatience with politics-as-usual.
The move to bring parties under RTI was prompted by genuine concerns about their opacity, and their dodgy funding declarations. But it rests upon a basic misunderstanding of what political parties are, the role they play in a democracy. The CIC declared them public authorities, because they, like many schools, hospitals, NGOs and clubs, get tax exemptions, subsidised land and offices. They also get free airtime on AIR and Doordarshan before election campaigns. Most parties rejected that logic, citing their right to association and discretion in their internal affairs. Their function, as they pointed out, is to mobilise partisan interests, compete, and represent these perspectives — not to be answerable to the public as a whole. What's more, it would be unwise to give civil servants and information commissioners an instrument of control over political parties, which derive their authority from a popular mandate, and can be voted out if aspects of their behaviour and practice are no longer acceptable.
If the primary concern relates to funding matters, then RTI is the wrong tool to force a cleansing. The gap between acknowledged and actual party expenses is one of the worst-kept secrets in India. This is far from a unique situation — the problems of party financing and political corruption, and the distortions of big money, trouble democracies around the world. The RTI does not change the mechanics of party finance — the black money in sectors like land and real estate, the fact that businesses prefer anonymity to tax breaks because they often donate to many parties in return for their benevolence, that large parts of these transactions are furtive. Fixing that would require tackling the collusion between political and business elites, and strictly monitoring tax compliance — a task far more complex than dashing off RTI petitions. If they are sincere about fixing the cynicism they evoke among the middle classes, parties must try harder to address these dysfunctions.
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