Tuesday, Sep 25, 2018 | Last Update : 08:49 AM IST

Flawed understanding, flawed logic

The writer is a development economist and a professor with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences
Published : Jun 3, 2018, 12:41 am IST
Updated : Jun 3, 2018, 12:43 am IST

A political party is, first of all, a voluntary association of people who believe in a particular ideology or a particular view of social change.

If such discussions are publicised at a later date through a RTI request, it might seriously impact on the freedom of expression of people within this voluntary collective.
 If such discussions are publicised at a later date through a RTI request, it might seriously impact on the freedom of expression of people within this voluntary collective.

There has been clamour for bringing in political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act and that they be considered public authorities. On the face of it, it is a welcome move, but you scratch the surface and there will emerge are very fundamental flaws in the argument.

The demand for such a move is derived from a faulty understanding of what a political party is and what is required to clean up the electoral process and the corrupt practices indulged in by mainstream political parties.

A political party is, first of all, a voluntary association of people who believe in a particular ideology or a particular view of social change. They are neither constitutional entities nor state-funded organisations. They are, of course, registered with the Election Commission and are bound by the rules it brings in from time  to time. But that does not give the government or the Election Commission undue rights to spy upon the internal functioning of a political party and use it for unintended objectives.

Being a voluntary association of people, it is normal that a certain amount of confidentiality and privacy is expected in the internal functioning of discussions of a political party. For instance, when discussions on the selection of a candidate for elections or on a crucial policy issue take place, different individuals may voice different opinions, though at the end of it all, they will agree and work upon a consensual decision arrived at within the party. If such discussions are publicised at a later date through a RTI request, it might seriously impact on the freedom of expression of people within this voluntary collective. Ultimately, this might adversely impact the free expression of opinions within the collective.

The decision-making process within a party is different from that in a public authority. A public authority is a creature of the law and hence every decision it takes has a binding impact on every citizen.

A violation or disobedience of a decision of an authority will have legal consequences. There is no escape from it, except seeking legal remedies.

But a political party being a voluntary association takes no decision that binds on every citizen; they are not binding even on their members. Those who do not abide them will have the choice to be with the party or not. This choice is not available to the citizen under the public authority, and hence he has every right to know the making of every decision.

Of course, political parties have to be accountable. Most important aspect of such accountability is financial accountability. Much of the instances of corruption indulged in by political parties stem from the lack of financial accountability among the political parties and hence there should be move to ensure it. Every political party already has to submit annual returns of their revenue and expenditure and there is no doubt that such information should be freely available to the people at large.

Such financial accountability, however, should not transcend itself to affect the very democratic functioning of a political party. Among other things, it will provide the stronger and more financially powerful political parties to gain knowledge of confidential discussions within smaller political parties and use it against them for subversive purposes. Even the financial transparency of political parties should be looked at from a careful perspective.

There is every chance of people who fund parties that are inimical to the ruling dispensation, becoming targets. This could dry up the sources of funds for smaller political parties. This will seriously impact the very survival of a democratic political system.

There are many instances in India in the past where the government in power would use its agencies which are supposed to carry out specific purposes being misused to bring opponents into subjugation.

Giving the government or outsiders access to information within such parties will make their functioning difficult. Our system functions under the premise that the opposition is very much part of the political process. Anything that can evenly remotely help the government keep it under a tight leash would not strengthen democracy.

Tags: right to information act, election commission, political parties