Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Electoral bonds

Recent reports about corrupt practices adopted by the ruling party and its allies collecting huge amounts of money as donations under the garb of electoral bonds has raised many eye-brows in the political and social circles. In fact, it has been ongoing debate about reforms and greater transparency in political funding and funding from the state exchequer to check these corrupt practices. The call for greater transparency has been ignored time and again by the successive governments at the centre and states. Attempts to alter the mechanism and procedure of political funding, to move it away from blind cash donations, need to be at the forefront of political finance reform in India. Yet, the manner in which the electoral bonds scheme was first introduced, and then implemented, raises grave questions over whether the instrument, in its current form, can facilitate a shift towards a more transparent system. The people purchasing electoral bonds were spared of questions about the source of money, they have got and are willing to donate to any party, mainly ruling party in this case, is a pointer to grave irregularities in the process. Somehow, the NDA-government favoured this mode in order to collect as much money as it could a few months before the Lok Sabha elections this year. A disturbing picture of the government riding roughshod over the concerns voiced by the Reserve Bank of India and the Election Commission has come to light. Reservations were expressed on whether providing anonymity to the donor was in line with the intended objective of the scheme to clean up political funding. Serious concerns were also voiced that the scheme could lead to unlimited and untraceable corporate donations, including by foreign companies, through shell companies to political parties. An argument can be made that anonymity shields donors from future retribution. But, in a democracy, in which transparency should be the guiding principle, voters should be aware of the contributions to parties by various entities. No public purpose is served by protecting the confidentiality of donors. Further, allowing the SBI, a government-owned bank, rather than the RBI, to be the issuer of these bonds raises questions over the influence the government can exert on the functioning of this rather opaque and dubious system. As the bank has to maintain details of the donor, and has to furnish these details to enforcement agencies upon request, it invites the charge that these details can be accessed by the government and used to its advantage. Apart from this, the ad-hoc manner in which the rules of the scheme were tweaked to change the time-period when these bonds can be purchased and deposited lends further credence to the narrative of an uneven playing field – of a system that has been geared to give the ruling party enormous and unfair advantage. The details compiled by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) shows that the BJP garnered 95 percent of the Rs 222 crore bonds issued in the first phase. The lopsided nature of the scheme is further revealed in reports published by various newspapers which showed that electoral bonds with denominations of Rs 1 crore accounted for more than 91 percent of the Rs 5,896 crore raised in the first 11 phases over which the bonds were sold. Reforms to address the nature of political funding should pass the basic tests of transparency and accountability. In this case, it would seem that these basic tenets have not been adhered to. This has serious repercussions for the functioning of democracy, and therefore warrants a clearer and deeper look at political funding and its instruments. It is also unfortunate that serious concerns over blind donations have been raised in the past also. Such tendencies will not only undermine functioning of a healthy democracy but also threaten the democratic institutions across the country in future.