Have our politicians attained such a level of maturity that they can live in peace with someone who openly donates big sums of money to a rival party? Sadly, the answer is a big no. In the West, top businessmen are widely known to fund political parties of their choice without living in fear of reprisals by rival parties when the latter happen to be in power. Thanks to the maturity of the electorates and a scant role of government in business there is no fear when a moneybag contributes to his favourite political party. Here in India, industrialists felt obliged to give liberally to the then ruling Congress Party election after election even though it had pursued anti-business and anti-growth policies throughout its failed tryst with socialism. Even now, businessmen routinely contribute to multiple parties, though the amounts can vary depending on their nuisance value.
A businessman feels himself lucky if he can contribute to a party which reflects his own policy preferences. Therefore, it is not a good idea to publicly disclose the name of donors to various parties through the newly-introduced electoral bonds. The whole idea behind the bonds was to keep the donors’ identity hidden from the people, though it had to be necessarily revealed to the bank issuing the bonds against payment through legitimate financial instruments. Let us illustrate the above point with an example. The Aam Aadmi Party declared from housetops that it would not accept a paise in donation without putting the name of the giver and his address on its website.
But soon it came to accept crores of rupees from big donors without revealing their identity. Its excuse: donors insist we keep their names secret because otherwise they are harassed by governments run by rival parties. The hue and cry by a couple of professional activists has now led the apex court to order that the political parties reveal the names of donors of electoral bonds to the Election Commission by end-May in a sealed cover. This will defeat the very objective behind these bonds. Of course, it was not the best way to eliminate the role of black money in elections but it was still a beginning to encourage businesses to fund political parties through legitimate, tax-paid money.
It was a halfway house between outright black money donations and one hundred percent transparent donations. The buyers of electoral bonds even now are law-bound to furnish their identity to the State Bank of India, but it remains hidden from everyone else. The argument that the bonds legalized the anonymity of the donors is irrelevant insofar as the money given is legit and, besides, no public purpose is served by making the donor’s name public. Again, the argument that 95 per cent of the bonds were donated to the ruling party is neither here nor there. It has been the practice since the founding of the Republic for businessmen to contribute most liberally to the ruling party of the day. If not the bonds, will it be better if 95 per cent of the cash donations went to the ruling party?
In the absence of an ideal situation when white money alone would fund political parties, the bonds with the identity of the buyers known to the selling bank is a good compromise between transparency and anonymity. Do those who challenged the bonds through a PIL in the apex court want to force business houses and other big donors to give cash only to political parties? No body can deny that transparency in political funding is a desirable objective. However, given that cash still permeates the vital sinews of the economy, denying businesses an opportunity to donate through bonds will force them to revert fully to black money contributions.
The Election Commission can be excused for expressing concern about the anonymity feature of the bonds. For its remit is to try the best possible way to make the electoral process fully transparent and to rid it of the use of black money. In fact, we would have been surprised if it had taken a different line. But the apex court cannot be oblivious to the reality on the ground. It should ensure that while seeking to make it transparent, in actuality it once again does not make election funding fully opaque by clamping down on the electoral bonds. Idealism must meet pragmatism half-way. Bonds give businesses an opportunity to fund parties through banks while keeping the identity of buyers hidden from the lay public.