The CIC's full bench comprising Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra and Information Commissioners Annapurna Dixit and M L Sharma issued the order in response to a clutch of petitions filed by senior advocate and activist Prashant Bhushan and RTI activist Subhash Aggarwal among others.
With this ruling, now citizens can seek information about the political parties in the form of written records that could include details about their funding, expenditure and even selection of poll candidates.
The CIC ruling pertains to six parties--Congress, BJP, CPI-M, CPI, NCP and BSP--to whom RTI queries were directed.
The political parties have been given six weeks to appoint public information officers. "The CPIOs so appointed will respond to the RTI applications extracted in this order in four weeks time," the Bench directed.
The Bench also directed them to comply with the provisions of mandatory proactive disclosures clauses given under the RTI Act and put those details on their websites.
Anil Bairwal of Association of Democratic Reforms had raised three principal points justifying the arguments that parties were under the RTI Act--indirect substantial financing by the central government, performance of public duty and Constitutional and legal provisions vesting them with rights and liabilities. "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 accomodations have been placed at the disposal of political parties at hugely cheap rates thereby bestowing financial benefits on them," it said.
During the hearing of the case, all the major political parties had opposed the idea of political parties coming under the RTI. Their argument was that mere subsidised facilities provided to them does not equal to funding from the government.
As per the transparency law, a non-governmental organisation will become a public authority if it is substantially government funded, directly or indirectly.
Political parties like the Nationalist Congress Party had argued that as per the RTI Act, public interest is not a criteria to declare a body public authority. It had also felt that the parties will have to spend lot of manpower and money to gather information sought by the public.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was concerned about information on inner party discussions in public domain could affect the party's interest.
BSP's lawyer Shail Dwivedi had claimed that there was not "direct or indirect funding" by the government and the facilities like free air time, buildings at cheap rents and other facilities do not constitute funding.
However, the Bench held the 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.
"We have no hesitation in concluding that INC/AICC, BJP, CPI-M, CPI, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the central government and therefore they are held to be public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act," the Bench ordered.
On the performing of public duty point raised by Bairwal, the CIC held that political parties "affect the lives of the citizens, directly or indirectly in every conceivable way and are continuously engaged in performing public duty. It is, therefore, important that they become accountable to public."
"Political parties are the unique institution of the modern constitutional State. These are essentially political institution and are non-governmental. The uniqueness lies in the fact that in spite of being non-governmental, they 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," the Bench held.
Citing a Supreme Court order where it held that people of India must know the source of expenditure incurred by political parties during elections, the CIC said these judicial pronouncements unmistakably command progressively higher level of transparency in the functioning of political parties in general and their funding altogether.
"In view of the nature of public functions performed by political parties...we conclude that political parties in question are public authorities under section 2(h) of the RTI Act," the Bench held.
With PTI inputs