On the face of things, the government makes a good point when it argues that until India Inc believes the government will punish it for making political contributions to opposition parties—and today’s Opposition can become tomorrow’s government—it is unlikely there will be too many donations by cheque. To that extent, the Electoral Bond Scheme was a good idea since, with companies no longer worried that their contributions to various political parties will be made public, they can go ahead and donate liberally. The rise in the amount of money collected through bonds is significantly higher than in the past, and shows the bond is a success.
The problem with the electoral bond, and that is why the Supreme Court said all donor details have to be submitted by political parties to the Election Commission in a sealed envelope—the petition to outlaw the bonds requires more deliberation—is that it has traded one good thing for something worse by hitting at transparency. Getting more donations by cheque instead of in-cash 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, for instance. This larger cleansing required not paying citizens for their vote, not buying news coverage, not having criminals fighting elections, being upfront in explaining the hike in assets of MPs etc. None 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 and no political party is agreeing to not allow them to contest; nor is there any serious move to ensure that all cases against politicians are disposed of within a year using special courts. Nor have any political parties, and the Election Commission, come up with more credible spending limits; as a result of this, 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. The Election Commission has done well to say parties and candidates have to publicise criminal records, but that means little when all parties have candidates with so many criminal charges. And while asking candidates to file their income tax returns for five years is a good step, why not get the taxman to do a quick investigation into tax returns where candidates show an unusual jump in assets?
The government’s argument that, in the absence of bonds, election funding will go back to cash—which is even more anonymous than election bonds where the donor details are with RBI—sounds convincing, but it isn’t really so. For one, the amount received through bonds so far is actually quite low compared to the likely spending. But while that can still grow over time, if the government has been able to smash the black economy through demonetisation as it claims, and GST has led to a greater formalisation of the economy, then it is just a matter of time till donations come by cheque since the cash-route will all but have disappeared. Also, to the extent corporates have to declare they have contributed money for a political party, even though the party whom the money has been given to remains secret, each political party knows whether it got the money or not; to that extent, the potential for victimisation remains the same. The most important reason for not keeping the names secret—and this is why the Supreme Court has to declare the scheme illegal—is that, if the public has no idea of which company paid how much to which political party, tracing a quid pro quo becomes that much more difficult. At the end of the day, any change in rules for elections—whether in terms of donations or spending—has to be judged in terms of what that does for transparency.