Political Parties Are Answerable To The People
IN the mid-Sixties there was a popular play titled Who&’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? a parody of the song “Who&’s Afraid of Big Bad Wolf?” from Walt Disney&’s The Three Little Pigs. The story revolves around two couples trying desperately to suppress certain truths, which to their consternation manage to come out leading to thunder and fury. In her writing, Virginia Woolf had attempted to expose the truth: all of the things that the couples in this play try to cover up. When the couples sing the song together, they make a mockery of their own fear of the truth and are attempting to project, a false image.
Do we see a parallel with the Central Information Commission, political parties and the present scenario? Indeed, we should. More than the CIC&’s categorical order that political parties would come under the purview of the Right To Information Act, the Commission&’s contention that they are the ‘building blocks of a constitutional democracy’ seems to have upset them the most. Because obviously they are not. If they really are, they would not have made one whimper against the CIC ruling. Instead, the political cabal has gone to town mocking and screaming at the CIC.
The CIC&’s ruling is well-reasoned on general, legal and financial grounds. Under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, a political party can have a member of the House disqualified in certain circumstances; that a political party is required to be registered by the Election Commission of India (ECI) under the Representation of People Act, 1951; that under the Act, political parties are required to submit a report for each financial year to the Election Commission in respect of contributions received by it in excess of Rs 20,000; that the Election Commission allots symbols to various political parties; that it can suspend or withdraw recognition of a recognized political party in the event of violations; that political parties are mandated to file regular income-tax returns.
On the financial side, large tracts of land in Delhi have been allotted to various political parties either free of cost or at concessional rates; accommodation in Delhi has been provided to various political parties on a rental basis at concessional rates; political parties have been granted total tax exemption for all their income; the State has been indirectly financing the parties by way of free air-time during the elections and the recognized ones are issued copies of electoral rolls by the Election Commission, free of cost, at the time of elections.
Therefore, the CIC has ruled thus: “In view of the above discussion, we hold that INC, BJP, CPI(M), CPI, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the Central Government under Section 2(h)(ii) of the RTI Act. The criticality of the role being played by these political parties in our democratic set-up and the nature of duties performed by them also point towards their public character, bringing them in the ambit of Section 2(h). The constitutional and legal provisions discussed also point towards their character as public authorities…..The presidents, general secretaries of these political parties are hereby directed to designate CPIOs and the Appellate Authorities at their headquarters in six weeks’ time. The CPIOs so appointed will respond to the RTI applications extracted in this order in four weeks’ time. Besides, the presidents/general secretaries of the above-mentioned political parties are also directed to comply with the provisions of Section 4(1) (b) of the RTI Act by way of making voluntary disclosures on the subjects mentioned in the said clause.”
This set the wolf among the vultures, and the response has been fierce. Political parties have ‘ganged up’ against the order with the Congress leading the charge. The first response was from the PMO itself through V Narayanaswamy, Minister of State, who unwittingly let the cat out of the bag: “Our party is a private organization. RTI Act is not applicable to us”. Later the party general secretary Janardan Dwivedi went for the jugular: “We totally disagree with it. Such an adventurist approach will create a lot of harm and damage to democratic institutions…. Getting political parties entangled in such unnecessary things will damage the democratic process. We simply cannot accept it.”
The CPI-M&’s ‘intellectuals’ said they could not accept the order, which was based on a misconception of the role of political parties in a parliamentary democracy and could harm the integrity and role of parties in a democratic political system. What a warped and skewed discourse on people, political parties, democracy and integrity? The political philosopher, Harold Laski, who had famously said, ‘the life of the democratic state is built upon the party system’ would be turning in his grave!
The BJP as usual is ‘neither fish nor fowl’! The party, which initially welcomed the verdict, quickly did a ‘course correction’. Its spokesperson, Nirmala Sitharaman, said: “We are finding that there is confusion about the overlapping role of the CIC and the EC. While the BJP wants political parties to be transparent and accountable, and is already responding to the poll panel&’s orders, the EC will have to clarify.” She seems to have got it all wrong. The CIC order is about political parties being answerable to ‘We, the People’, not responding to Election Commission rules. The overlap that is being talked about is mere red herring!
The CIC and political parties have raised and responded contrastingly to a critical issue directly related to the people ~ should political parties that run the government and control all levers of power be answerable to the people who are supreme in our constitutional scheme of things? While the CIC is on the side of the people, political parties are totally opposed. Yet, we lotus-eaters still believe that politicians represent the people! What a travesty.
If only political parties and their spokespersons had learnt the elementary lessons of democracy, they would have known that it is a political form of government carried out either directly by the people or by means of elected representatives of the people fielded by political parties. The term comes from the Greek demokratía (rule of the people), which was coined from dêmos (people) and krátos (power). Democracy, therefore, means ‘rule by the people’. This is echoed in the Preamble of our Constitution, which is the charter of India&’s democratic governance ~ “We the people of India…..do hereby adopt enact and give to ourselves this Constitution.”
In a democracy there is a vital difference between the people and the politicians who represent them. People are not made by anybody, but a politician (MP or MLA) is made by the people. All the power, pomp and perks that go with the MLA, MP or Ministers are derived from the people. In a true democracy, the highest position is not the President or Prime Minister, but the humble citizen. And he/she has every right to know what his/her creatures ~ politicians and political parties ~ are doing with their vote, their money and in their name.
The issue basically is ~ Should the truth about the arbitrary, autocratic and opaque functioning of political parties and leadership brought in the open and made accountable. A la Virginia Woolf, the CIC is for revealing the truth which the political coterie is desperately trying to suppress and cover up. When the Congress, BJP and CPI-M politicos mock the CIC, they are expressing their own fear of the truth and are attempting to project a false image.
The CIC has made a path-breaking ruling that could open up many a can of worms and usher in real and transparent democracy. Indeed, the wheeler-dealers and carpetbaggers who masquerade as political masters have every reason to be afraid!
The writer is a retired IAS officer