Opinion: Why political parties must make their funding public?

The SC telling top national parties to explain the reason for their reluctance must be taken up by them as a wake-up call.

Santosh-TiwariWhen the common taxpayer is asked to disclose all income and investments (domestic and foreign, both) to curb black money, why are the bastions of black money, the political parties, are unwilling to disclose their funding to the public?

That the unaccounted income accumulated to evade taxes get into the political system is no secret. For any serious attempt to tackle black money, along with real estate and bullion sectors, political funding needs to be tackled. And for that, the donations and accounting of political parties have to be transparent.

It is the vicious cycle of ill-gotten wealth, political donations, and seeking favours from the parties in lieu of that, which has corrupted the system to such an extent that carrying genuine business at any level is a difficult task.

So, with the Supreme Court now telling the six national parties to explain why their account books and donor details should not be disclosed to the public under the Right to Information Act, must be taken up by them as a wake-up call.

Though the sad part is they should have done it earlier as the Central Information Commission had said in a June 2013 order that the parties should share these details with the information seekers through RTI, the parties will have to now clarify why they have not done this so far.

Considering the six national parties include BJP, Congress, CPM, CPI, BSP and NCP — the outcome of this case could be a starting point in finding a workable solution to this issue. The apex court has also asked the central government and also the Election Commission to give their views on this contentious issue. While the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) has been helping the Election Commission in curbing the use of unaccounted money in the elections in the last few years, these efforts will certainly get a boost now.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) in a report submitted to the election watchdog in 2011, had suggested a complete overhaul of the accounting practices of political parties and reporting of donations and funds. The ICAI-suggested framework included a strong regulatory environment to keep a watch on political funding to ensure accountability and financial discipline. All this is a mirage in the Indian context and sharing of funding details is limited to the filing of income tax returns which can never be made public.

Interestingly, the Electoral Commission of the UK is doing this job quite successfully. The Commission points out clearly on its website: “Registered parties and their accounting units must keep clear and accurate records of their accounts to show their true financial position. Parties and accounting units with annual income or spending over a certain threshold must have their accounts independently audited. All party headquarters, and those accounting units with income or spending of over £25,000, have to send us annual statements of their accounts.”

It also publishes parties’ latest statements of accounts online to ensure transparency about their income and spending. Besides conducting elections and referendums, the Commission also acts as the regulator of political party finances. “We work to make sure people understand the rules around political party finance. Alongside this work, we also take action when the rules are broken and publish information on political finance,” it says.

This, obviously, can’t be done quickly in India without the support of the political parties as it would require changes in the relevant laws. But, it has to come at some point of time.

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