Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Electoral bonds

It is impossible to weed out corruption from India without cleansing the affairs of the political parties which primarily rely on secret funding. It is for this reason that Supreme Court interim order on the petition seeking a ban on electoral bonds is disappointing. The court has ordered all parties to provide to the Election Commission details of the funds received by them in a sealed cover by May 31 and did not give any immediate relief by way of scrapping or even temporarily maintaining a stay order on the bonds till the final disposal of the petition. The court had ample time to decide on this very significant petition which is aimed to bring transparency within political parties with respect to their funding channels and make the parties accountable to the public. The petition was filed in February when elections had not even been announced and could have been treated with the immediacy it required. Instead, it has now been kept pending till after the culmination of the elections, allowing certain political formations to reap the harvest of the secret electoral bonds to the hilt and make the electoral battleground an unlevel field. While the court has raised several questions about electoral bonds, it has not responded to the contention of the Attorney-General K K Venugopal appearing for the government that “public had no right to know who funds political parties” which is ridiculous and a complete anti-thesis of democratic spirit. Even the Election Commission has also opposed electoral bonds and spelt out their serious consequences, even called it a ‘retrograde step’. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that those buying and donating electoral bonds are not engaged in some charity work but aim to get their pound of flesh once elections are over. The very premise of promise of transparency and cleaning up the political funding system in India on which the design of electoral bonds was launched a year ago is ludicrously flawed. Electoral bonds are interest-free bearer instruments in the nature of promissory notes issued by banks. The argument was that banks would be able to track the buyers of electoral bonds and thus ensure that clean money comes into the system, while protecting the donor’s anonymity. The conventional practice of funding elections via cash was expected to be minimized with electoral bonds coming into the picture. There is no cap on the limit of funding through electoral bonds and the ability to track and remain knowledgeable about where this so-called clean money is coming from remains confined to the State Bank of India. It does not come out in the public domain where it should be rightly placed and the anonymity of donors is non-negotiable which subverts the public’s constitutional right to information. Instead the electoral bonds have made the affairs of electoral funding far murkier than they ever were. According to reports, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) received Rs 210 crore from the scheme in the financial year 2018. It works out to 95% of the total bonds issued. Between March 2018 and January-end this year, donors purchased bonds worth Rs1,407 crore, according to an RTI response. It is anybody’s guess which party has bigger fingers in this pie. Money plays a crucial role in influencing voters not just through more direct and dishonest means of buying votes but through campaigning and publicity as well specially when the voters do not know where this money is coming from. The entire democratic exercise is turned into a farce if its foundation has to be laid on secret funding, which obviously is a more organized and legtimized system of kickbacks and commissions. The system is not only a flawed one, it is one that seeks to endanger democracy and raise the levels of corruption, even legitimizing it. Transparency and accountability instead can be ensured by making every penny that any political party receives public.