FPJ Edit: Electoral bonds are better than opaque ‘small donations’

The Supreme Court last week declined to stay the sale of electoral bonds ahead of the assembly polls in a number of states. A three-member bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde said that the scheme launched in 2018 had worked smoothly in the following two years as well and there was no reason to block it now.

The judgment came on a plea by an NGO, Association for Democratic Reforms, which sought a stay on the sale of the bonds. The NGO contended that the sale of bonds before the elections would further increase ‘illegal and illicit’ funding of political parties through shell companies. The court agreed that the scheme protects the identity of the purchasers of the bonds but nonetheless these were bought through regular banking channels and after buyers disclose their identity. It is only that the identity of purchaser is withheld from the public but the authorities insist on buyers who pay for the bonds through licit banking channels furnishing their names after filling in the requisite Know Your Customer forms.

The court rubbished the NGO claim that the electoral bond scheme facilitated the use of corporate donations to vitiate the political atmosphere and tilted the scales unfairly in favour of one or the other party. It also debunked the claim that the scheme helped the donors to use black money for political donations. The court ruled that the bonds could be purchased only through white money coming through regular banking channels after the bond-buyers fill the requisite KYC forms.

Besides, corporate entities registered in the country and bona-fide citizens alone could purchase the bonds. Predictably, sections of the leftist-liberal media and fellow travellers criticised the apex court, finding fault with the interim nature of the order when the matter could have been considered for a final disposal. Continuing the stay meant the matter would need further consideration by the court. Besides, the issues involved were serious since these impinged on the health of our electoral system.

It was argued that the electoral bond scheme by not making the names of the purchasers/ donors public allowed the ruling party to use excessive money power to tilt the elections in its favour. How the revelation of names would help prevent the flow of a larger share of political donations to the ruling party of the day defies logic. The truth is that big business always tends to fund most generously whichever party happens to be in power in New Delhi.

For ten years when the Congress-led UPA was in power, the Congress coffers were full with corporate donations, notwithstanding whether these were in black or white money. Since cash donations above Rs 20,000 are prohibited without disclosing the identity of the donors, a huge bulk, sometimes over 90 per cent, was shown as ‘small donations’. All parties invariably received cash donations from the corporate houses but in the account-books, listed these as small donations, having been collected by party units in amounts ranging from Rs 10 to a little less than 20,000, thus obviating the need to identify the donors. And, more importantly, the cash donations thus received and running into tens of crores of rupees would be deposited in the party’s bank accounts.

Since the launch of the electoral bonds the corporate donors have begun to give a good part of the donations through these bonds. Of course, the bond scheme is not perfect as it lacks complete transparency. In a democratic polity, the right of citizens to know who funds which party and by how much amount ought to be respected. But without any hesitation it can be said that the electoral bond scheme is a huge improvement over the earlier system in which corporate houses simply offloaded bagfuls of cash, leaving it to the parties to claim it falsely as small donations.

If these transparency warriors insist on knowing, some of them were part of the Aam Aadmi Party when it was first launched. One of its thundering promises was that it would not accept a paisa in corporate donations, sourcing all funds from the ubiquitous ‘aam aadmi’ and list his or her name complete with address on its website along with the amount donated. That within months, Arvind Kejriwal, the sole controller of the AAP now, rubbished that promise, and now follows the same practices when it comes to accepting political donations as Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav do says a lot for the zeal of the transparency warriors. Hypocrisy in politics is now widely accepted, and expected. But in the business of crusading for transparency it still seems to surprise some people.

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