Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud on Tuesday observed orally that political parties may have “a point” when they fear that accountability under the Right to Information (RTI) Act may even extend to disclosure of internal decisions, as to why they chose a particular candidate.
The chief justice, headed by a three-judge bench, was hearing a batch of petitions seeking to declare national and regional political parties as “public authorities” under the RTI Act. Several parties, including the Congress and the BJP, have been named as defendants in the case.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), represented by advocate PV Dinesh, said it supported the cause of political parties’ financial transparency in financial matters, but was against forcing parties to disclose confidential information such as “why a candidate was selected and what was discussed within the political party etc”.
“They have a point. They say, don’t ask us to reveal how we selected our candidates… I don’t think you can do that,” Chief Justice Chandrachud addressed advocate Prashant Bhushan and senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayan appearing for the petitioners.
“Basically they want to know how parties work,” intervened Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the government.
But Mr Sankarnarayanan countered that the apex court had in the past passed several orders, directing political parties to publish/advertise/tweet the criminal antecedents of their candidates. “It’s not done,” he submitted.
Detailed hearing on Tuesday
The court fixed the case for detailed hearing on Tuesday.
Mr. Bhushan argued that political parties have received substantial benefits, including bungalows, from the government. They had a role in governance as they controlled the opinions of their legislators through the whip.
An accompanying petition filed by the NGO Association for Democratic Rights said the Central Information Commission (CIC), in 2013 and 2015, declared national and regional political parties as public authorities.
Layered response of parties
However, parties responded with layered reactions to the CIC’s findings. They have argued that opening the RTI could lead to an undemocratic breach in their confidential discussions, including their respective attitudes towards the government and plans to organize a movement against the “wrong policies of the government”.
The central government has also opposed the petition, arguing that parties cannot be forced to disclose their internal functioning and financial information under the RTI Act as it would hamper smooth internal functioning and become vulnerable to political rivals with malicious intent to take advantage.
“The CIC has given a very liberal interpretation of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, leading to a wrong conclusion that political parties are public authorities under the RTI Act. “Political parties are not established or constituted under the Constitution or by any other law made by Parliament,” the Center’s affidavit said in 2016.
It argued that there were already provisions in the Income Tax Act, 1961, and the Representation of the People Act, 1951, demanding “necessary transparency regarding the financial aspects of political parties”.
The Center submitted that registration of a political party under the 1951 Act does not amount to establishment of a public body. It said that information on a political organization on the Election Commission’s website is already in the public domain. In addition to Section 75 A of the 1951 Act declaration of assets and liabilities of every elected candidate is mandatory.