The CIC decision declaring political parties as public authorities under the RTI Act has again pit the political class against the people. Political parties have increasingly lost legitimacy due to opaque financing, cultivation of individuals with criminal background, subversion of institutions, and exposes of bipartisan scams and abuse of power. There is widespread perception of State capture by special interests and frustration with the inability to extract meaningful accountability through electoral means. It is thus that the public and media have hailed the decision bringing political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act as a blow for transparency and accountability. On the other hand political parties have largely rejected the decision and will no doubt attempt to block its implementation through judicial and/or legislative means. While political parties must indeed be held accountable, the CIC order merits a nuanced response wherein financial transparency must be separated from decision-making and other processes of a political party. It is also important to differentiate between political and legal accountability, and mechanisms to achieve both.
The RTI Act defines “public authority” as either a State instrumentality or any other body substantially financed (directly or indirectly) by the Government. Premised on the logic of democratic accountability, the RTI makes extensive demands on public authorities for not just financial transparency but also those of decision-making and manner of exercise of their authority. This is desirable because State power in a democracy works through institutionalized channels. The powers and functions of each and every State organ are delineated through well-defined processes; State functionaries are held accountable not for outcomes, but adherence to due process. Moreover, Government bodies, unlike political parties, are constitutionally liable to treat all citizens equally, unless exceptions for differential treatment are justified on the basis of reasonable classification.
The CIC has held that political parties are public authorities on three grounds: the substantial indirect financing by the Central Government through concessional land allotments, tax-exemption etc; the performance of public duty by political parties which “in spite of being non-governmental […] wield or directly or indirectly influence exercise of governmental power” to “affect the lives of citizens […] in every conceivable way”; and Constitutional/legal provisions vesting Political Parties with rights and liabilities such as registration with the Election Commission of India and the ability to “recommend disqualification of Members of the House in certain contingencies under the Tenth Schedule”. The argument pertaining to substantial indirect financing is compelling and complies with the spirit of the RTI Act. In the face of a recalcitrant political class, the order has also provided a foothold to force transparency and a modicum of accountability on political parties.
The sheer amount of power exercised by political parties speaks of the urgent need for their accountability; however, the often ad-hoc and informal nature of the functioning of political parties necessitate further deliberation before the order can be operationalized on issues outside of financial transparency. A political party exists both in the formal and informal political space. In the formal space, the political party must exert itself to mould State behavior as per its promises to the public, through processes defined by the institution. For instance in the legislature, political parties shape laws by discussing and voting on Bills, and hold the political executive accountable through questions and various motions. However a large part of a political party’s existence is in the informal political space, wherein it must articulate a vision for the society, selectively mobilize different constituencies, and establish its credibility. All this necessarily requires a repertoire of mobilizational tools at its disposal such as the projection of selected individuals and different modes of engagement with the public. In addition, a political party must occupy reactive space as well, wherein it must respond to shifting dynamics on the ground, which may entail sudden shifts in its stated or implied positions. Finally it is important to note that political parties exist in a framework of unequal distribution of formal and informal power individually and collectively – and different power combinations assert themselves at different times to affect decision-making.
It is useful to evaluate the notion of transparency and accountability of political parties against this backdrop. To the extent that political parties operate as State functionaries through formal institutions, comprehensive transparency is an important component of accountability since it provides a measure of adherence to due process. However accountability of political parties through transparency in the informal sphere is difficult because a) transparency itself is contingent on a degree of formalization and b) in the absence of a defined procedure, the determination of whether or not there’s been a transgression will necessarily be a political not legal exercise. There is a legitimate viewpoint on the need to formalize certain party processes, such as selection of candidates through internal democracy – however this requires a separate legislative initiative. There is no question that political parties are necessarily accountable for their decision-making including for their choice of candidates, their policy initiatives, the difference between their rhetoric and achievements – however it is worth debating if this accountability can be driven through strictly legalistic means or whether this accountability must necessarily be embedded in a variable political context.
The expansive use of the RTI Act is itself a political response to try and enforce accountability on an institutional player perceived to have run amok using the mechanisms available to the petitioners. It may not be the ideal mechanism for areas outside of financial transparency, and this issue will no doubt run through the various institutional fora. In the end the political class may well emerge victorious given its legislative veto. However if in the process it is seen to resist transparency altogether, it will only have de-legitimized itself further.