A bench of Chief Justice J S Khehar and D Y Chandrachud dismissed a public interest litigation challenging the constitutional validity of Section 13A of the Income Tax Act which grants exemption to political parties.
The issue had gained salience in the context of PM Narendra Modi’s push for reforms in political funding.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had linked the push to the anti-black money objectives of the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes. The SC also turned down the plea to make it mandatory for political parties to declare the source of all money received. But as Modi’s recent speeches indicate, this is an area that is likely to be reviewed soon.
While the government seems ready to consider lowering the current limit of Rs 20,000 for anonymous donations, there is no indication that it is could consider reviewing the tax exemption. There is a move to de-register parties that have been inactive and are suspected to be using their status largely to launder unaccounted and illegal money.
Section 13A of the IT Act says any income of a registered political party which is chargeable under the head “income” from house property or from other sources or any income by way of voluntary contributions received by a political party from any person shall not be included in the total income of the previous year of such political party.
Challenging this provision, advocate M L Sharma contended exempting political parties from paying tax is illegal, unconstitutional and against national interest. He alleged that there are 1,848 registered political parties and they misused the law to hold unaccounted money. “Political parties are supposed to be main chest of the black money in the country.
Till date no investigation, search, enquiry has been conducted against any one of the political parties as they are in power to control all investigation systems. It is admitted fact that all the political parties are holding black money under the garb of political funding,” he said in his plea.
The bench, however, was not convinced and said political parties need to generate fund from public to propagate their ideologies. There is nothing arbitrary or unconstitutional about the provision and it was for the government of the day to decide who to grant exemption and the court should not interfere with the policy. “This is a matter of executive determination. How can we decide? When the tax regime was introduced, the government chose on how and what income was to be taxed. It also decided who should be exempted,” the bench said. The petitioner, however, insisted that the term “political party” was not recognised in the Constitution. The bench replied that not everything needs to be mentioned in the Constitution and even the term Hindu undivided family is not in the Constitution but is recognised under tax law.
“It is for the government to decide whom to exempt under income tax law,” the court said. In respect of voluntary contribution, the parties are to maintain record of name and address of donors only in case when the contribution is in excess of Rs 20,000.