The eighth anniversary of India’s freedom of information law, the Right to Information Act (RTI), could become an important milestone in the country’s transparency agenda. The 2005 sunshine law has already made a tremendous impact on how Indian decision makers respond to public scrutiny efforts, and this year has seen a heated public debate around the finances of political parties with the anniversary creating momentum to rethink (and maybe even redesign) the country’s current political finance transparency landscape.
Political Finance Transparency and Freedom of Information Legislation in India
But how does freedom of information lead us to political finance transparency? In India, regulations on the transparency of funding political parties (and election campaigns) are in pretty bad shape, even compared to other loosely regulated systems. According to Global Integrity and the International IDEA, there are basically no real requirements to disclose most of the donations to political parties and candidates, no limits on individual donations and the major share (!) of funding is received from anonymous contributions. When it comes to enforcement, there is no requirement in law for any independent auditing of political parties, nor there is a separate agency to effectively monitor political financing – just to mention a few of the loopholes in the Indian law.
And this is where freedom of information legislation comes into the picture. A few months ago, a couple of Indian transparency activists from the Association of Democratic Reforms had asked six political parties to disclose the details of voluntary financial contributions they have received alongside their donors’ names and addresses. Most of the asked political parties refused to give that information claiming that they do not come under the RTI Act. But the Central Information Commission of India has ruled in a landmark judgment that political parties come within the ambit of the RTI Act. The order made a fair and reasonable argument by pointing out how odd it would be 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.”
Since then, political parties have done their best to exclude themselves from the RTI. The government has introduced an amendment to the RTI Act which seeks to insert an explanation stating that political parties should not be considered as public authorities and therefore should be exempt from the FOI legislation. The move evoked unprecedented public uproar and citizens and activists (such as the RTI Call-a-Thon campaign) are now calling their Members of Parliament to bring political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act.
The Need for Political Finance Transparency
Given the situation, those in India who are advocating for RTI laws that would apply to parties are pursuing a reasonable next step to shine a light on the funding of political parties. In line with the conclusions of the Central Information Commission of India, it is imperative that voters know the source of political funds and how they are spent in order to make informed decisions, gauge the corrupting influence of contributions on candidates and parties or the policies they pursue, to prevent or curtail illegal fundraising, to uncover potential conflicts of interests, to ensure the funds are being spent within the limits of the law, to promote competition between the parties, and to determine whether further changes to a country’s system of political financing are required.
And although not “public” entities in the traditional sense of the word, political parties have a significant impact and influence on government institutions, policies, and the democratic process, as well as access to public resources. As such, they can be considered quasi-governmental entities to which Right To Information/FOI laws should apply. According to Transparency International the general trend globally is towards increasing the scope of the entities covered by FOI legislation and the most progressive legislation already includes legal entities that perform public functions. In order to fairly evaluate the activities of political parties, the public has a right to know where party funding is coming from and how it is being spent. The application of RTI laws to parties is an important step towards making such information public.
So Is RTI Enough?
Ultimately, however, regardless of the impact of applying FOI laws to political parties, that step alone is unlikely to provide sufficient transparency for political finance. Bringing political parties under the RTI Act may be a crucial first step, but in the long term pro-active political finance transparency laws must be adopted to reduce corruption and the appearance of corruption, while building trust in the democratic process.
At a minimum, a political finance reporting regime must include detailed, itemized information on all sources of party income and all expenditures. Disclosure of contributions should allow for analysis of the donor’s interests and potential influence, therefore should include the donor’s name and the date and amount of the contribution. If the donor is an individual, the donor’s occupation and employer should also be disclosed. Summary information, including year-to-date totals should also be included. Disclosure should be timely, and more frequent during elections. Information should be made available as open data: most importantly published online, in an open and structured way. Regardless of the mechanism, the public has a concrete and urgent interest in accessing that information.
Numerous global organizations recommend that political parties adhere to strict accounting rules and make their information public. Examples include the Council of Europe guidelines on the financing of political parties, and the Recommendation on the Common Rules against Corruption in the Funding of Political Parties and Electoral Campaigns, Transparency International’s policy position on political financing, or recommendations and analysis from OECD and the International IDEA.
The Sunlight Foundation applauds efforts to create more transparency around political party financing in India. Below you will find links detailing our recommendations on political finance and lobbying transparency in the US. We are creating more detailed guidelines that apply to other national contexts to help local activists and policy-makers improve their systems.
Relevant Sunlight Resources
On Political Finance Transparency:
On Lobbying Disclosure:
On Data Disclosure Formats: