In response to a query under Right to Information RTI) Act, from Pune-based Vihar Durve, the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the Central Election Commission (CEC) said: “The requisite information is not available in the Commission. This is related to political parties and they are out of the purview of the RTI. They may submit information of donation/amount collected through electoral bonds in their contribution report for the financial year 2017-18 in the Election commission of India (ECI) for which the due date is 30 September 2018.”
Earlier in June 2013, the Central Information Commission (CIC) in a decision had declared that six major political parties are ‘public authorities’ as defined in the RTI Act since they receive ‘substantial funding’ from the government.
All ‘public authorities’ fall in the ambit of the Right to Information Act and are obliged to provide information sought by citizens using RTI. These six parties for whom a specific order has been given are Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian National Congress (Congress), Communist Party of India (Marxist)-CPI(M), Communist Party of India (CPI), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
These parties should have followed the statutory order of the CIC. If for some reasons they felt the CIC decision was wrong, they should have approached the courts. Unfortunately they decided to defy this order without giving any legal justification. In a democracy, following the rule of law means following statutory orders. If major institutions chose to defy them, democracy becomes weaker and if this is done too often, democracy and the rule of law would wither away.
As far as the CEC is concerned, he has no jurisdiction in the matter of whether any institution is a public authority or not. If they had the information, they should have provided it. Since they claim that the returns of the political parties are due on September 2018, the PIO should have transferred the RTI application to the political parties within five days as per the requirement of Section 6 (3) of the Act. Instead of acting in consonance with the law the CEC chose to refuse the information and refused to transfer the application to the political parties claiming that the parties are out of the purview of the RTI Act. This is an illegal action and usurpation of the powers of the CIC. One may have been tempted to dismiss this as an act of ignorance by the PIO. But the First Appellate Authority Senior Principal Secretary KF Wilfred agreed with this illegal order of the PIO!
It is bad enough that the political parties are not following a statutory order. But for the ECI to try and provide legitimacy to this illegal action is unacceptable. It would be really good if at least one these parties declared that they would follow the directive of the CIC and start providing information. They would stand out from the flock and further the cause of transparency and accountability. There would electoral gains as well if parties chose to demonstrate that they respect the law and also are willing to be transparent. RTI only requires information on record to be given and there are ten exemptions to safeguard legitimate interests. I would like to point out that the Indian Army also is in the ambit of RTI and there has not been a single instance of the nation’s security having suffered because of this. The exemptions in the law to disclosure are an adequate safeguard for legitimate interests.
The CEC should reprimand its PIO and First Appellate Authority and transfer the RTI applications to the political parties.
(Shailesh Gandhi served as Central Information Commissioner under the RTI Act, 2005, during 18 September 2008 to 6 July 2012. He is a graduate in Civil Engineering from IIT-Bombay. Before becoming a full time RTI activist in 2003, he sold his packaging business. In 2008, he was conferred the Nani Palkhivala Memorial Award for civil liberties.