On Wednesday, the Income Tax Department carried out searches at more than 100 locations across several states to ostensibly crack down on financial improprieties by registered unrecognised political parties.

These searches are part of a series of actions taken by government departments recently to investigate political parties that are registered but not recognised by the Election Commission. The number of such parties have more than doubled between 2011-’21, from 1,112 in 2010 to 2,796 in 2021.

At present, only close to 2% of 2,858 registered political parties are recognised.

The Election Commission has reported that the majority of unrecognised parties do not adhere to statutory compliances, such as filing documents related to funding and taxation, among others.

Unrecognised political parties

To form a political party, any association or a body of individuals has to get themselves registered with the Election Commission of India under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. After this, a party could fall in one of two categories: recognised and unrecognised.

The Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968, says that a party can be recognised either as a national party or a state party depending on the number of votes or seats they secure in elections.

To be recognised as a national political party, a party has to satisfy either of the following conditions:

  • Secure a minimum of 6% of the valid votes polled in at least four states in the previous Lok Sabha election or state Assembly election. In addition, it needs to have won four seats in the Lok Sabha.
  • Win at least 2% of Lok Sabha seats (11 seats given 543 members presently) from a minimum of three different states.

For recognition as a state party a party must satisfy any of the following conditions:

  • Secure at least 6% of valid votes polled in the previous Assembly election and win at least two seats.
  • Win at least 6% of valid votes in the previous assembly election and have one Lok Sabha member from the state.
  • Win at least 3% of the seats, or three seats, whichever is more, in the previous Assembly election.
  • Win at least one out of every 25 seats in the Lok Sabha elections allotted to the state.
  • Secure at least 8% of the valid votes polled in the state in the previous Assembly election or the Lok Sabha election.

Recognised political parties get to reserve a symbol and use it exclusively, whereas unrecognised parties have to choose from a list of free symbols. Recognition also comes with other benefits, such as free broadcast facilities over Doordarshan and All India Radio, more allowances for campaign expenditure and free copies of electoral rolls before elections.

However, some entitlements, like collecting donations that are fully exempt from income tax, are available to all parties after registration, whether recognised or not.

Crackdown on unrecognised political parties

In the past few months, government agencies have increased action against unrecognised political parties. In May, the Election Commission noted that the majority of these parties did not contest elections or file their contribution reports and annual statements and therefore violated the law. This defeated the “purpose of a clean electoral system”, it said.

The commission observed that 87 of such parties did not exist at their notified address, and ordered them to be deleted. Out of these, three parties were prima facie found to be involved in “serious financial impropriety”.

It also sent a list of 2,174 unrecognised political parties that did not submit contribution reports to the Department of Revenue, asking it to take appropriate action for violating the law on political parties and tax declarations.

Then, in June, the Election Commission delisted 111 unrecognised political parties for being non-existent.

Surveys of civil society actors

Alongside these searches, the tax department also carried out “surveys” at the offices of the Delhi think tank Centre for Policy Research, the non-governmental organisation Oxfam India and the media funding body Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation in Bengaluru. It is not yet known what these operations were related to.

While surveys are carried out to inspect and, if required, impound, books of accounts, record statements and assess the valuables at the assessee’s place of business, searches come with more power. During searches, tax authorities can seize assets and also search any place that is linked to the assessee.