I quote the words of Lord Acton "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". It is undoubtedly a corrupt world which we live in today. When political parties demand absolute power by going against a socially accepted enactment like Right to Information Act (hereinafter referred RTI Act), we should reasonably doubt a tinge of corruption.
Supreme Court will interpret "public authority" under RTI in a most likely landmark decision
Central Information Commission (hereinafter referred as CIC) in its judgement in 2013 said that political parties should be brought under RTI since they avail various financial aids and perform public functions. This has created so much conflict of opinion among politicians and parties.
In Right to Information Act public authority is defined as any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted by or under the Constitution, any other law made by Parliament or legislature, any notification or order of appropriate government. It is somewhat an exhaustive definition. The 2005 legislation is all about transparency. In the Representation of The People Act, 1951 a political party is defined as an association or a body of individual citizens of India registered with the Election Commission as a political party.
Now the political parties fear that losing of transparency will hamper their smooth working. They justify the stand on the belief that opponents will mis-utilise the provision such as to affect their internal functions adversely.
The matter again came up to the fore as a Public Interest Litigation (hereinafter referred as PIL) was filed by members of Association of Democratic Reforms in the honourable Supreme Court of India. As a result of that notice was issued by the apex court to Government's Department of Personnel and Training (hereinafter referred DePT) which coordinates personnel matters. As per the sworn affidavit by the DePT, political parties shall not be brought under the purview of public authority in RTI Act. But the stand of DePT or we can say the Central Government, is only based on non-statutory grounds. They have not argued anything in relation to the wordings of the statute. Now as the words in the statute is exhaustive and the CIC who has every right under the Act, issued a judgement, will the Court let down the PIL only on the basis of the affidavit is an interesting aspect to look into. Moreover, a political party as an association of persons shall be heard in detail. Aam Aadmi Party is against the stand of DePT. If majority of political parties/DePT is against inclusion of parties under RTI, Supreme Court will have to go deeper into the objectives of RTI to decide upon the Public Interest Litigation. If such a thing happens, there is every chance that the apex Court decides in favour of the petitioner. As the Court is a forum which has to interpret law and at the same time a truth-seeker and justice delivery mechanism, it has a social responsibility. Merely acting on the point raised by DePT that the financial matters of Political Parties are scrutinised and verified on the basis of Representation of People Act and provisions in Income Tax Act, the apex Court may not blindly decide upon the petition. Effective dealing of the above two laws in the matter will not make RTI Act inapplicable or the same should not be reason to avoid RTI Act in the matter. Rather it can be pointed out that as the above two laws are concerned with social impact of political parties, ie dealing with public money as in the case of Income Tax Act, it is unjust to exclude political parties from the ambit of RTI Act. Furthermore, the present plea of reasoning that there will be misused by political rivals is not strong enough as it is always there with RTI Act. In my point of view, this will be purely an interpretation of law, but surely based on social facts and circumstances coupled with objects and reasons of the enactment. It is now for the Court to find out whether political parties will come under the definition so as to bring it under the purview of the Act. But it is unsure how far can Supreme Court go to interpret the definition so as to include or exclude political parties. This will be a landmark judgement. But I worry about the quality of interpretation which the Court is going to make to the word public authority as it is seems an exhaustive definition. We can also see it as a battle between the legislature and judiciary.
The Court's points of reasoning will most probably include questions like "Whether a political party is a public authority?" and "Whether a political party, if judged a public authority, is entitled to any protection of exemption on the basis of secrecy?". As per Section 8 of the RTI Act there are many exemptions from providing information in the absence of any public interest. However sub-section (2) also states that these exemptions or any provision in Official Secrets Act, 1923 shall be outweighed if public interest is present. Section 11 also states that any information relating to third party is exempt from disclosure unless larger public interest is proved to exist.
It is important to note certain provisions of appointment of information commissioner. As per Section 12(6) and 15(6) of the Act a Chief Information Commissioner, Information Commissioner, State Chief Information Commissioner shall not be a connected with any political party. So we could see the importance of public interest ahead of any political or personal agenda and also the no-elite status for political parties by the said provision. As per the Act, it does not have any special status. Hence now the first question remains whether it is a public authority.
We may see that Political parties are liable to submit their income source to Election Commissioner and to Income Tax Authorities. This has been raised as a point of argument by Centre. But there is a ruling by Delhi High Court in Rakesh Kumar Gupta's case where Court declined to give information of Income Tax Return on the basis of absence of public interest. Section 138 of the Income Tax Act, 1961 also exempts such a disclosure. Likewise, honourable Supreme Court of India in Girish Ramchandra Deshpande versus Central Information Commissioner and others in Special Leave Petition (Civil) No:27734 of 2012 @ CC 14781/2012 ruled on the same lines.
So one thing is clear from the above point of laws that data relating to income and expenditure of political parties are exempted from disclosure by the laws and rulings except where there is an element of public interest. presence of public interest will ensure getting of information relating to income tax returns of a political party. If it is so, why political parties should not come under Right to Information Act. In this regard, I feel the plea of Centre/DePT very weak. But nowhere in the enactment, "public interest" is defined. This is indeed an interesting aspect. So now the Court will definitely look into definitions of like-enactments. Now let us wait and see how the Supreme Court decides upon the issue. There is already so much hue and cry regaring this among the nation. However with the presence of ample law against political parties, RTI will most probably be a necessary evil for them.

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