Electoral bonds don’t help clean up election funding

By: |
March 29, 2021 5:00 AM

That is the issue the Supreme Court needs to examine when it decides on whether to declare them illegal

It is when such information is in the public domain that RTI activists and others try to piece them together to see what they add up to.It is when such information is in the public domain that RTI activists and others try to piece them together to see what they add up to.

The Supreme Court has not addressed the original petition against electoral bonds filed some years ago—on Friday, it refused a stay on issuing such bonds before the assembly elections—but when it does, it will be taking a call on whether these bonds have made election funding more transparent. Or whether this remains as opaque as during the days when donors who wanted to remain anonymous contributed in cash; and to comply with the law, the donations were shown to be made in amounts of less than Rs 20,000 since names of those donors do not have to be declared. To the extent electoral bonds have replaced cash, they appear to be a move towards making the system more transparent since the payments are made by cheque to SBI which sells the bonds. But if the donations are being routed through front companies, there is no knowing whether the money that is coming in is from firms that have not been avoiding taxes; in which case, it could be as ‘black’ as the cash donations were.

Perhaps the more important reason for moving to cheque-based donations was that it would help the public know whether the donations had resulted in some quid pro quo. When anonymous cash donations are made, even if the party in power favours the donor, the link is not obvious. While it would be if the payments were made by cheque, when this is routed through SBI bonds, no one really knows who the donation was made by. Theoretically, SBI knows the details of those who bought the bonds, but this doesn’t help since SBI is not matching these names with those of the ultimate donor or even the benefits the government of the day may have conferred on them. It is when such information is in the public domain that RTI activists and others try to piece them together to see what they add up to.

Getting more donations by cheque instead of cash, it should also be kept in mind, was never meant to be an end in itself, it was part of a larger cleaning up. So, apart from money coming in by cheque, candidates were to be honest about their spending; other ills like buying news coverage, not having criminals fighting elections, etc, also needed to be fixed. Little of this, however, has happened; the proportion of MPs with criminal charges, for instance, has risen from 12% to 15% to 21% in the last three Lok Sabhas. Nor have any political parties, and the Election Commission, come up with more credible spending limits; as a result, most election spending tends to be under-the-radar or is made via the party or friends of the candidate where there is no cap on spending. So, even if it is assumed that donations via electoral bonds are better than the cash donations of the past, there is little to suggest it has improved the murky world of campaign finance and quid pro quo. In which case, the Supreme Court will do well to strike down the electoral bonds.

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