It is a well known fact that several hundreds of crores of rupees are spent by political parties in canvassing for their candidates in each election. And the figures are well shrouded in the mists of obfuscation and opacity, despite the several reforms that have been initiated and the systems that have been put in place for bringing about transparency in political fund raising and spending. The efforts are more often than not symied due to basic disconnects, like how political parties are accountable to the EC but not to the Income Tax authorities on how much they raise or spend. With the election fever currently underway, the NRI Achievers team trawls the media both national and international, and brings you interesting aspects of the scenario.

Plush chartered jets, giant LED screens at public meetings, fleets of SUVs and sedans for roadshows, posters, hoardings and advertising. As of now, none have any fix on the mammoth amounts being spent by political parties in campaigning for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. Not even the Election Commission, despite their recoveries to the tune of about INR 250 crore in cash, and huge quantities of illicit alcohol and narcotic substances so far, all in connection with poll canvassing.

Despite all the reforms that have been steered through during the past decades, the current election is still cast in the same mould as earlier ones, remaining stuck in the old ways in one crucial respect — the lack of transparency in political funding. This is despite a landmark ruling last June by the Central Information Commission bringing political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act. In the face of public outrage over political corruption, Parliament backed off from a Bill designed to negate the CIC decision. While the CIC order remains unimplemented, an RTI application on political donations has triggered a panic chain-reaction within the income tax department. All that the RTI application filed by activist Venkatesh Nayak sought was the details of action taken by the department on a 2013 letter from the EC forwarding the IT returns of 17 political parties, all of which happened to be regional parties such as Asom Gana Parishad, Bodoland People’s Front, All India Forward Block and Indian National Lok Dal. Although none of the national parties or the bigger state parties figured in the list, the IT department handled Nayak’s plea like a hot potato. Rather than disclosing the action it had taken on the returns of the political parties, the Central Board of Direct Taxes forwarded the RTI application to the chief commissioners of income tax in various states, with a copy duly marked to Nayak. This was replicated by officers down the line. In response to the application filed on December 2 last year, Nayak received over 500 letters from IT officers of various levels and jurisdictions over the next four months.

This passing-of-the-buck reaction may be interpreted as a tacit admission that the CBDT had not set up any special cell to process and track the returns. The final replies came from the bottom layer of the hierarchy, the officers in charge of IT wards. Most of those replies were, to be sure, “nil reports” as the political parties concerned were not registered in their wards. Even otherwise, the few replies that said anything substantive ended up citing various reasons for rejecting the RTI application. For the political parties registered in the Northeast, the Guwahati IT office said simply : “No inquiry is required as contributions are less than Rs 20,000.” It gave no indication of any attempt to verify the claim made by those political parties that all the donations received by them were below the cut-off for reporting to IT authorities.

Worse still were the replies that made a mockery of the high stakes involved in maintaining a vigil on political funding. For no apparent reason, the IT officers of Ludhiana in Punjab and Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir conflated the political parties with the national cricket board. For instance, the letter from Udhampur dated February 6 said : “Neither BCCI is assessed nor any registration granted by this office. No cricket association is assessed in this office.” This bizarre trajectory of this RTI application underlines the opacity of the existing system in which political parties are accountable for their funding and accounts only to the EC and the IT department. It shows that there can be no real transparency in political funding unless the parties are accountable to citizens under the RTI, as directed by the CIC.

In its landmark decision on June 3, 2013, the CIC had directed the six national parties, including Congress and the BJP, to appoint information officers and appellate authorities under the RTI within six weeks. When none of the national parties bothered to meet the deadline, the CIC dragged its feet on issuing non-compliance notices to them. Thanks to repeated reminders from petitioner Subhash Chandra Agrawal, the CIC finally did so on February 10. But again, though they had been given four weeks to respond to the notice, the CIC is yet to take any punitive action against defaulting parties. Had the CIC forced the national parties to submit to the RTI discipline, it might have made a perceptible difference to political funding and expenditure in the ongoing election. Since this issue threatens the political class, it will not go away easily. It remains to be seen if the next Lok Sabha will revive the proposal of enacting a law to get around the CIC decision. Or will the political parties, seeing the writing on the wall, at last place themselves under the RTI, regardless of the repercussions ?

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