Friday, May 2, 2008

Open Sesame

Ever since it came into effect, the Right to Information (RTI) Act has forced the Indian state, notorious for its stonewalling ways, to open up.

Now political parties are facing the heat. In a recent order, the Central Information Commission (CIC), which oversees RTI, has declared all political parties should disclose their income tax returns.

The reason given by the CIC is that information on the funding of parties is a "democratic imperative and is in public interest". We agree entirely.

In the US, for instance, the Federal Election Commission, an independent regulatory body, keeps records of campaign finance and enforces laws on the limits and prohibitions on contributions.

Anyone can log on to their website and access the latest campaign finance information on presidential candidates or on those running for other offices.

One can also find out the names of individual or corporate fund givers, how much they have donated and to whom.

Though this is by no means foolproof — slush funds do find their way to election candidates — it is a remarkably transparent system.

The Indian electoral system, by contrast, is opaque and the funding of political parties and candidates has largely been unregulated.

This has meant that a huge amount of black money has made its way to parties and their leaders. As a result, potentially good candidates, who don't have financial muscle, have been effectively kept out of the electoral arena.

It's only a few years ago that things changed for the better with candidates contesting Parliament and state assembly elections having to reveal their financial worth when filing their nominations.

This happened after a PIL was filed in the courts seeking disclosure of an election candidate's background.

Candidates also have to maintain an account of campaign expenses, stick to a maximum limit and file a return of expenses. However, we still have little idea of the amount and sources of contributions to parties and their leaders.

We are saddled with a situation where leaders such as Mayawati have amassed vast fortunes, claiming that they have been showered with "gifts" from their supporters.

And that has been accepted by the income tax authorities. Disclosure of tax returns could be a first step towards making political parties a little more transparent.

Unsurprisingly, parties have come out against efforts to reveal their IT returns. They must agree to reveal their sources of funds for public scrutiny. For, murkiness in campaign finance is at the root of much corruption.

Source: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Opinion/Editorial/TODAYS_EDITORIAL_Open_Sesame/articleshow/3002761.cms

Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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