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Make people, not pelf, rule our democracy

The State Bank of India, the seller and redeemer of Electoral Bonds must now hand over the names of the donors and recipients to the Election Commission of India (ECI) which,in turn, will publish it all on its website by mid-March.
Last Updated 24 February 2024, 22:22 IST

The landmark judgement of a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court striking down the Electoral Bond (EB) Scheme as unconstitutional came on a very significant day – February 15. It was on this date 460 years ago that the celebrated truth-seeker Galileo Galilei was born.

The ecclesiastical powers in Rome tortured him to recant his heliocentric theory, which challenged the extant Biblical notion of Earth being the stationary centre of the universe. Legend has it that while he did as they demanded to avoid death, he muttered at the end of it, “Eppur si muove” (and yet, it moves).

Being true to the upanishadic saying -- satyameva jayate, na anrtam, (truth alone triumphs, not falsehood) – the Supreme Court put an end to the system of opaque political party contributions that the Modi government had forced on the country by giving the excuse of protecting donors’ identity. Ironically, and brazenly, it was done in the name of transparency!

The State Bank of India, the seller and redeemer of Electoral Bonds must now hand over the names of the donors and recipients to the Election Commission of India (ECI) which,in turn, will publish it all on its website by mid-March. Indeed, a major victory for the voters’ right to know, on which any functional democracy must be based.

But what escaped the notice of many was the wool that the Solicitor General sought to pull over the eyes of the court by calling the Electoral Bond scheme ‘subordinate legislation’.

The court devoted several pages to explain how subordinate legislation may also be struck down on grounds of manifest arbitrariness.

Nobody asked a simple question -- when was the scheme tabled in parliament? To the best of my knowledge, it was published in the Official Gazette and implemented right away.

It was never tabled in parliament afterwards, in the manner of rules and regulations made under plenary laws. Had it been tabled, MPs could have amended it or even annulled it.

I also stand vindicated today. In 2021, the Central Information Commission dismissed my RTI application to SBI, holding that this court case was pending and no public interest would be served by disclosing the Electoral Bond application forms that buyers filled and the redemption slips which political parties deposited.

Unfortunately, though, the SC judgement directs the disclosure of only the donor’s names and the Electoral Bond denominations bought, along with the dates of purchase.

The application forms and KYC forms that buyers filled up contain many more details, such as postal addresses, PAN and proof of identity which will continue to remain sarkari secrets.

We will never discover the backward linkages of donors to their original funding sources. Designed as bearer bonds, Electoral Bonds may not necessarily have been bought in the name of the person or entity that actually shelled out the money.

The Electoral Bonds judgement must be utilised to revive the languid debate about political party financing. Foremost, should corporates be permitted to make donations to political parties at all?

Transparency International’s excellent compilation of laws on this subject shows that Estonia, Brazil and France have banned corporate donations.

If Rafale fighter jets are good for safeguarding our national security, should we not consider banning corporate donations, as the French have, to ensure our democracy’s security?

Further, Italy, Finland, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Portugal, Canada and even the US have enacted laws to cap the amount of money donors may contribute to political parties in a year. We must explore imposing such limits on big money, which, according to the Supreme Court, already has a “seat at the (policymaking) table”.

Electoral Bonds, of course, were just one manifestation of the ‘money power’ that plagues our politics before and after elections. A lot more needs to be done to make people, rather than pelf, the sine qua non (essential condition) of our democracy.

(Venkatesh Nayak wakes up every morning thinking someone somewhere is hiding something)

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(Published 24 February 2024, 22:22 IST)

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