Indian Panel Advances Bill to Exempt Political Parties

18 December 2013

A committee of the Indian Parliament Dec. 17 recommended that political parties be exempted from the Right to Information Act.

One member dissented as the six major political parties followed through on their plans to overturn the June ruling of the Central Information Commission (CIC) that political parties are covered by the RTI act as “public authorities.”

“Declaring political parties as public authority under RTI Act would hamper their smooth internal functioning,’ according the committee report, and “party rivals may misuse the provisions of RTI,” according to a report in The Times of India, an article in LiveMint and another in The Deccan Chronicle.

Despite the committee action, opponents of the exemption have bought time through the referral of the matter to the committee. Both Houses of Parliament adjourning sine die Dec. 18.  They will return next year to handle budget issues in advance of a Spring General Election.

The dissenter, Anu Aga, supported the CIC’s argument that the parties receive substantial funding from the government in the form of subsidized rents, free airtime on state media and tax exemptions on donations. “Political parties compete in elections to receive a mandate from the public to form the government … parties are the most essential ingredient for functioning of our democracy … they perform a public duty, they have a public function and they have a legal basis,” she was quoted as saying. The sources of the political parties’ income is 80 percent unknown, said Aga, who is also a member of the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council. Aga said the parties would be protected by the law from disclosing commercially sensitive information and other things covered by RTI Act exemptions.

The standing committee report contends that the political parties are covered by other laws. “The committee considers the proposed amendment is a right step to address the issue once and for all. The committee, therefore, recommends for passing of the bill,” the Standing Committee on Law and Personnel said in its report tabled in Parliament.

The proposed Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013, would add an explanation in Section 2 of the Act which states that any association or body of individuals registered or recognized as political party under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, will not be considered a public authority. The bill would apply retroactively.

Attorney General G E Vahanvati was “apprehensive” the bill will pass judicial muster and is quoted as saying:

Proposed amendment to RTI Act excluding Political Parties from the definition of public authority may not withstand constitutional challenge as it is creating a class within a class without having any consideration to the principle of intelligible differentia having reasonable nexus with objective of the Act (promotion of transparency and accountability).’’ On the other hand, Law Secretary B A Agarwal, told the committee that the bill was “quite sustainable.

On the other hand, Law Secretary B A Agarwal told the committee that the bill was “quite sustainable.”

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