The demand for bringing recognised national parties under the purview of the RTI Act -- since they receive public subsidies -- is tenable. But the question is -- should political parties be funded at all from the state treasury? Should the state not be funding the political process and not the political parties?
The recent complaint filed before the Central Information Commission against the recognized national parties by RTI activists Subhash Agrawal and Anil Bairwal of Association for Democratic Reforms raises some vital questions of concern to all citizens.
The complainants have argued that since such political parties have been receiving substantial financing from the Central Government in the form of cheap land, tax waivers and free media time, they have no business to refuse to come under the purview of the RTI Act.
The Central Information Commission (CIC) has issued a notice to the recognized national parties to submit their response on whether they should be brought under the purview of the Right to Information Act 2005. The notice states, “Some of the political parties in their replies to the complainants have claimed that they are not a public authority and as such they are not covered under the RTI Act. Since the issues involved are serious and the decision in these cases can have wider implications, the Commission has decided to place these cases before a Full Bench ...”
Official data show that four national political parties got tax exemptions worth Rs 1033 crore (about US$ 200 million) between 2006 and 2011. The Central Government has allotted land in prime locations in the national capital to Congress Party, BJP, CPI, CPI (M), BSP and others worth Rs 508.37 crore. In addition, free slots are given to advertisements by these parties on state-run TV and All India Radio during election time.
Appearing before the CIC on behalf of the Communist Party of India, Sri D. Raja justified the free TV and radio time provided during elections, claiming that it was part of the “democratic duty” of the State to provide a level playing field to all the parties.
In addition to 6 recognized national parties, there are about 60 recognized state parties and over 950 unrecognized registered parties in our country, plus an unknown number of unregistered political parties. Free TV and radio time is provided only to the recognized national parties during national elections – that is, to only 10 out of more than 1000 registered parties. Extending State support to a privileged 1% and leaving the remaining 99% out of consideration can hardly be called levelling the playing field!
Public subsidizing of a minority of political parties violates the principle of equality of political rights. It further enhances the money power and privileged position enjoyed by a select few, and is thus a form of political corruption.
Why should a minority of parties receive public financial support? Why should any party receive a paisa of public money? This is an important question that people need to think about.
It is instructive in this context to review an essay that was published in 2006 by Prakash Rao, Convenor of Lok Raj Sangathan. Some relevant extracts are reproduced below:
“The decision on the slate of candidates for election in a constituency must be taken on the basis of consulting the voters in mass meetings, by a constituency committee that will consist of respectable citizens selected by the voters in that constituency. This constituency committee must also have the right to determine whether an elected representative will have to be recalled for valid reasons; in such cases, the final decision will be that of the voters of the constituency who, in the first instance, elected him/her. The constituency committee must also have the right to propose legislation and legislative amendments; and it will be the duty of the elected legislator to introduce such proposals in the legislature and work for their enactment …”
“For any electoral reform to advance the situation towards people's power, it needs to be (i) based on the recognition of the uneven playing field that exists between the candidates of 'recognised parties' and all other candidates; and (ii) designed to correct for this unevenness.
“State funding of elections is a much-talked about subject these days. The Election Commission has invited views from the ‘recognised’ national and regional political parties on this subject. It seems to be implicit that ‘state funding’ will be only for these ‘recognised’ parties. Why do these parties need to receive the taxpayer's money when they are already sitting on considerable cash chests? It is clear that such proposals are not progressive, but regressive, when they are not based on the recognition of the uneven playing field and the need to correct the same.
“State funding of the electoral process (not of political parties) can become a powerful reform if and only if the party dominance of the electoral process is ended, including the prerogative of 'recognised parties' to nominate candidates and have party symbols on voting forms. State funding in the shape of equal television / radio time, supply of electoral rolls, can then be provided equally to all the selected candidates and monitored by the Constituency Committee.”
If instead of the state funding political parties, it funds the political process, in which candidates are selected by the people, then money power can be put to an end and elections can be really free and fair. Political parties should be funded solely by its members and supporters and not by the state treasury. The raison d’etre of a political party should be to educate the people about the political process, to organise and assist them in governance and decision-making. The role of political parties should be to empower the people and not to marginalize them in the name of representing them.