Electoral bonds not good for democracy

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Electoral bonds, introduced by the Narendra Modi government, have attracted criticism from various quarters for their opaqueness India’s millions of ordinary voters will never know the identity of those who are donating large sums of money to the political parties, especially the ruling BJP. The latest data show that electoral bonds have become the preferred route of political donations. Almost two-thirds of the Rs 3,696.62 crore received by the BJP and six other prominent parties, in 2018-19 were through electoral bonds. Electoral Bonds mark a reversal of the trend of increasing transparency in political party funding. Under NDA-I (Atal Bihari Vajpayee), the election laws and rules were amended to make donations above Rs 20,000 to political parties transparent and accountable. The identity of donors was made public through their annual contribution reports to the Election Commission, which proactively disclosed them to the public on its website. Under the Modi government, the opposite has happened. Fewer and fewer donors are making donations through transparent methods as those making big donations prefer the opacity of electoral bonds. The amendments made to the Companies Act in 2017 (to bring in the electoral bonds scheme) take away this right.

Available data indicates that the ruling BJP, which floated the scheme, has cornered a lion’s share of donations made through this route. This, coupled with the fact that the Income Tax Department sent notices to people who donated to AAP a few years ago, raises genuine concerns about the intentions of the government. Moreover, no donor has come forward to say that he/she demanded anonymity for making donations, which is what the government claimed as the reason for introducing the electoral bond scheme in 2017. All political parties that oppose electoral bonds must publicly pledge not to accept donations through that route. Other transparent methods like cheque, demand drafts and digital transfers do not create any disability for donors. This will put pressure on parties that accept electoral bonds to do a rethink. CPI(M) has refused to accept electoral bonds. However, if the Supreme Court declares the electoral bonds as violative of the principle of transparent political funding, which is the bedrock of a responsible democracy, then electoral bonds will die a natural death.

The legality of electoral bonds is in question before the Bench. Postponing a decision on this issue only lends greater legitimacy to electoral bonds as a source of political funding when there is a wealth of data in the public domain about its opacity and how it has benefited one political party at the expense of others. There are pros and cons to State funding of political parties. This must be decided through a well-informed and widespread debate involving the voters and taxpayers who actually bear the brunt of State funding. Any such mechanism will succeed only if illegitimate sources of funding to political parties and candidates are curtailed through legal and executive measures. Money power has influenced electoral outcomes for most of India’s independent existence. This must come to an end if elections are to be held in a free and fair manner.

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