We have received a number of inquiries about the CPI's position on bringing parties under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The decision of the Central Information Commission (CIC) that political parties should come under the RTI, as they receive a substantial amount of financial help from the government, has been rejected by all parties. Many eyebrows were raised as to why the Left parties are also opposed to it. I have received 180 emails in this regard.
What do you want to hide? Why are you opposing the CIC's decision? Why can't the Left parties agree to be transparent and accountable? These are some of the questions asked by well-wishers and the general public. And we have a responsibility to reply.
First, we would like to make it clear that the CPI is for transparency on income, expenditure, sources of such income and the names of donors. We have no hesitation in being accountable to the people. A political party is a voluntary association of people who believe in the political ideology of the party. We collect funds from people and work for them. Hence, people have a right to know our financial dealings.
Where, then, is the problem with being brought under the RTI? The RTI Act gives the people the opportunity to learn about the party's decisions, the contents of its files and other details. Political parties, though working for the public, enjoy confidentiality regarding their internal decisions, meetings and discussions. We are not prepared to share the minutes and other details of internal discussions, except with those who are members of our party committees. It is an internal matter of the party. We do, however, announce the party's decisions to the public. We announce the names of candidates who will contest on our party ticket, whom we will support, etc. But we cannot share information about the decision-making itself — who supported which candidate and the arguments within. RTI access of this kind will create problems for the internal, democratic functioning of the party. Our privacy will be compromised before our rivals, political or otherwise. We cannot agree to such an embarrassing predicament.
We cannot agree with the argument that political parties run with substantial help from the government. It is an insult to India's political parties. Some help and facilities are provided by the government to parties for the better functioning of democracy. In no way is it "substantial help".
The CIC agreed with the arguments of some RTI activists that political parties get substantial help from the government as they receive voters' lists from the Election Commission, are allotted timeslots on Doordarshan and Akashvani to explain their election manifestos, are allotted houses or bungalows in Delhi and other places for party offices, and quarters for party leaders in the capital.
It is true that the above facilities are provided. But it is not substantial financing. It is necessary to provide voters' lists to recognised parties as they have to check and distribute voting slips. The same is supplied to independent candidates and unrecognised parties at a nominal cost of a few thousand rupees. Allotting parties timeslots on government-run electronic media is a necessary exercise in making the public aware of the manifestos and other promises of the parties. It is not a favour done to the parties, and cannot be valued as commercial campaigning. Some committees on electoral reforms recommended that even vehicles be allotted to parties in order to curb corrupt electoral practices.
On the question of allotment of sites or buildings for party offices, I would like to cite the example of the CPI. In the 1970s, we wanted to purchase a site for the construction of our party office in Delhi. The government refused to sell, but allotted a site on lease. At that time, even the market price of the land was only a few lakh rupees. We constructed our party headquarters, "Ajoy Bhavan", and paid rent every six months. Costs of housing sites have since appreciated many times. The CIC calculated the value of our site at a market value of Rs 88 crore. The market value should be calculated as at the time of allotment, not at present rates. As it is leased land, we can neither own nor sell it, wholly or partly. This calculation, the basis of which is unscientific and unrealistic, misleads the public into thinking that a piece of land, costing a lot, has been allotted to the CPI. If an office site's value is calculated on the basis of the market price at the time of allotment, the total assistance to political parties will be less than 1 or 0.5 per cent of their incomes. This cannot be "substantial help".
Living quarters are allotted to leaders of some parties, along with their MLAs and MPs, for which rent is collected — between the concession rate and the market rate. So it is not based on nominal prices. This facility, or all of the above, cannot be treated as substantial financial aid.
So how do we make the financial resources of political parties transparent? Since we do not receive funds from corporate houses, we do not have anything to hide. The CPI is preparing to put all of its financial dealings on its website and make them available to the public. This can be made compulsory for all parties. As the most important part of a party's activity, people should know this as a right. We request people to understand and appreciate our apprehensions and reservations on the question of bringing political parties under the RTI Act. We want the CIC to withdraw its decision.
- S. Sudhakar Reddy, Ex. M.P. & General Secretary, CPI