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Parties and the people

August 24, 2013

THE Indian government is working on a bill with unanimous support to nullify a ruling by the Central Information Commission (CIC) that political parties fall within the ambit of the Right of Information Act, 2005.

Activist Anil Bairwal of the Association for Democratic Reform said: “Large tracts of land in prime areas of Delhi have been placed at the disposal of the political parties in question at exceptionally low rates. Besides, huge government accommodations have been placed at the disposal of political parties at hugely cheap rates thereby bestowing financial benefits on them.”

Income tax exemptions granted to the parties and free air time given by All India Radio and Doordarshan at the

time of elections also substantially contribute to indirect financing from the government.

Thus, the CIC order said, the parties had “been substantially financed by the central government and therefore they are held to be public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act”. Political parties “come to wield or directly and indirectly influence exercise of governmental power. It would be odd to argue that transparency is good for all state organs but not so good for political parties, which, in reality, control all the vital organs of the state. …” Section 2(h) defines a “public authority” to include NGOs “substantially financed, directly or indirectly,

by funds provided” by the government, central or state.

The CIC’s blanket order is bad. The public has every right to know a political party’s sources of income, its expenditures, the discharge of its duty to audit its accounts, the regularity and fairness of its elections to the top leadership, the office-bearers and the executive.

But nobody has a right to pry into its internal deliberations on matters essentially political; for example negotiations with other political parties, formulation of strategy to be followed inside and outside parliament, on poll alliances and generally on policy formulation.

Indian law is deficient on the regulation of political parties. In India the law evolved in fits and starts. It lacks a parties act which balances accountability with privacy.

All this reflects not only a neglect of the law but a profound indifference of the role of political parties in a democracy. There is at least one country whose constitution recognizes the status of political parties as a vital component of the democratic process.

Article 21 of the basic law of the Federal Republic of Germany reads thus: “(1) The parties shall help form the political will of the people. They may be freely established. Their internal organisation shall conform to democratic principles. They shall publicly account for the sources and use of their funds and for their assets.

“(2) Parties which by reason of their aims or the conduct of their adherents seek to impair or do away with the free democratic basic order or threaten the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany shall be unconstitutional. The Federal Constitutional Court shall rule on the question of unconstitutionality.

“(3) Details shall be the subject of federal laws.”

Accordingly the law on political parties was enacted to provide for elections to party organs, including “nomination of candidates for election”, publication of audited accounts and public financing of election campaign returns.

A democratic constitution cannot be worked by political parties run undemocratically by a powerful, unaccountable leadership which awards party tickets to candidates and undermines their independence.

A political party in India is viewed simply as an instrument for the capture and use of state power rather than as a forum which brings together diverse interests and resolves them by evolving a policy framework that, however imperfectly, satisfies all.

Its role is to articulate the parties’ grievances and, in turn, educate the people in the art of democratic governance. A political party which refuses to perform this role debases the political process.

To be vibrant and alive political parties enlist activists, popularly known as workers. Besides this, they perform another role. They enable supporters from various walks of life to make their mark in public life, to enter politics by participating in the party’s work.

This is where we confront the divide. In a party run democratically the rise of new talent depends on the support it commands from the rank and file. In a political party run by the party boss and his aides, the rise lies in their bounty. He has to win their favour and emerge as a reduced figure.

Over a century ago, some British politicians were alarmed at the rise of a ‘mass party’ — one in which the activists acquire a voice. They received a powerful riposte from Joseph Chamberlain who referred to them as: “those who distrust the people and do not share Burke’s faith in their sound political instinct — those who reject the principle, which should be at the bottom of all liberalism, that the best security for good government is not to be found in ex-cathedra legislation by the upper classes for the lower, but in consulting those chiefly concerned and giving shape to their aspirations whenever they are not manifestly unfair to others”.

These principles are relevant still. Legislation for the democratic working of political parties is necessary; but far more necessary is a democratic culture of popular participation in political parties. Without it there will be all harness and no horse.

Public debate on this matter has been marred by extremist positions on both sides. Both the activists and the political parties have refused to look beyond the legal aspects and reflect on the fundamental questions which touch the very foundations of the polity. What is the role of a political party in a democracy and what is the scope and ambit of the people’s right to know about its workings?

These questions must be answered bearing in mind the rival claims of autonomous workings of political parties and politicians’ accountability.

The writer is an author and a lawyer.