Let me begin right at the very beginning by first and foremost pointing out very explicitly that secrecy and non-disclosure of names of donors can never usher in transparency no matter how tall claims the government may make repeatedly through its eminent and senior leaders. Why should there be any secrecy at all? Why can’t there be full and fair disclosure of names of all donors who donate to political parties?
Bluntly put: Why political parties are not required to maintain records of the donors? Why the donor is not required to disclose the name of the political party while purchasing the electoral bonds? Why there is no cap on the amount of donations made through such bonds? Why is it ignored deliberately that such relaxation on the amount of donations will open the door for unmonitored funding of political parties by corporate which will have a disastrous impact on our economy as rampant corruption and favouritism will increase immensely?
Let me also be direct in asking: Why this hush-hush secrecy of not disclosing names of donors on one pretext or the other? Why is Centre not making any serious effort to make sure that nothing is hidden by politicians and that everything is disclosed by them relating to payment which they receive from different sources? Why is Centre offering just lame excuses for not disclosing the names of all the donors who donate generously to political parties?
What is also baffling is this: Why under this electoral bond scheme the donor’s identity won’t be revealed to the beneficiaries? What is there for politicians to hide? Why Centre wants full transparency from people but not from politicians? Why can’t politicians too reveal every money which they get from different sources for fighting elections just like any other common person? Why special exemptions for political parties and politicians? Do they deserve this?
What is also incomprehensible is this: Why government is trying to project this electoral bond as most viable method on cleaning up poll funding without making the names of donors public? Why on one hand Arun Jaitley claims that the present system ensures unclean money coming from unidentifiable sources and most political groups seem fairly satisfied with the arrangement and would not mind this status-quo to continue but on the other hand makes sure that even under the electoral bonding method the names of donors are not made public? What sort of transparency is this?
Why on one hand Arun Jaitley claims that the effort, therefore, is to run down any alternative system which is devised to cleanse up the political funding mechanism but on the other hand throws up another opaque system which protects the identity of the donors from being made public? How can any sane person support another opaque system with just few minor changes? Why can’t there be full transparency with nothing hidden from the public?
Why the maximum limit of 7.5% has been lifted on the proportion of the profits a company can donate to any political party of its choice? Will this not directly open the floodgates for shell companies being set up to specifically to fund parties? Why political parties have been allowed to take foreign funding by amending the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA)? Will this not increase the clout of foreign powers directly in influencing the functioning of our government? Should we be proud of this?
Agreed that reducing cash contributions from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2000 is a positive step but its overall impact could be deleterious as this will prompt parties to take smaller cash donations and thus not declare their source. Why this secrecy? Why not full transparency? Why is a common man deprived from knowing which corporate has funded which political party? Why even after disclosure of so many scams involving politicians just like the latest one involving several banks primarily the Punjab National Bank has resulted in looting of money worth more than Rs 20,000 crore as per the initial estimation? What purpose the electoral bonds would serve when the name of the donor is not disclosed as was pointed out even by Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge?
It is noteworthy that the government on January 2 had notified electoral bonds as a new instrument for donations to political parties. But it was on February 1, 2017 that Jaitley had first announced the idea of electoral funds in his Budget 2017-18 speech to make political fundings more transparent. Jaitley while underlining the basic contours of the electoral bonds scheme announced during the 2017 Budget, including their denominations, validity and eligibility of the purchasers said that, “Electoral bonds would be a bearer instrument in the nature of a promissory note and an interest-free banking instrument.”
Arun Jaitley has himself said that, “The government is willing to consider all suggestions to further strengthen the cleansing of political funding in India. It has to be borne in mind that impractical suggestions will not improve the cash-dominated system.” Who can be better equipped than Arun Jaitley himself who has been a senior lawyer of Supreme Court and also Union Law Minister to understand best that not disclosing the names of donors will only make sure that even those involved in wrong activities too can donate money without their name being made in public? How can this be justified under any circumstances?
Truth be told, under the new system the prospective donors will be required to buy interest-free electoral bonds of designated denominations which they will forward to the parties of their choice. These bonds can be purchased for any value, which are in multiples of Rs 1000, Rs 10,000, Rs 1,00,000, Rs 10,00,000 and Rs 1,00,00,000 from the specified branches of the State Bank of India. The validity of the bonds would be 15 day to ensure that it does not culminate in parallel currency or safe haven for black money!
Truly speaking, the donors’ identity won’t be revealed to beneficiaries. Jaitley says this is needed to discourage cash donations. He does not say why and how. In any case, it’s far from certain why the present system of cash donations will cease with the advent of electoral bonds as the role of cash in the electoral battle will continue to remain as dominant as before if not more! Who can dispute or deny this?
It must also be revealed here that the life of the electoral bond would be only 15 days. Jaitley said that, “Electoral bonds would have a life of only 15 days during which it can be used for making donation only to the political parties registered under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (43 of 1951) and which secured not less than one percent of the votes polled in the last general election to the House of the People or a Legislative Assembly.” He also said that the bonds would bring in substantial and significant electoral funding when there is “nil transparency” as of now. These electoral bonds will be made available for purchase for 10 days each in January, April, July and October. It must also be mentioned here that the Government in a Lok Sabha election year can specify an additional period of 30 days.
Interestingly enough, only registered political parties which secured at least 1 percent votes in last election will be eligible for receiving donation through electoral bonds. Any Indian citizen or a body incorporated in India will be eligible to purchase the bond. Though the identity of the donors will not be made public, banks will have his details since the purchaser will have to fulfil the Know Your Customer (KYC) forms. The bonds will not carry interest.
Simply put, a bond can only be encashed in a pre-declared account of a political party. Every political party in its returns will have to disclose the amount of donations it has received through electoral bonds to the Election Commission. The entire transactions would be through banking instruments. Jaitley reveals that as against a total non-transparency in the present system of cash donations where the donor, the done, the quantum of donations and the nature of expenditure are all undisclosed, some element of transparency would be introduced in as much as all donors declare in their accounts the amount of bonds that they have purchased and all parties declare the quantum of bonds that they have received.
To be sure, Jaitley also reveals that, “How much each donor has distributed to a political party would be known only to the donor. This is necessary because once this disclosure is made, past experience has shown, donors would not find the scheme attractive and would go back to the less desirable option of donating by cash. In fact the choice has now to be consciously made between the existing system of substantial cash donations which involves total unclean money and is non-transparent and the new scheme which gives the option to the donors to donate through entirely a transparent method of cheque, online transaction or through electoral bonds. While all three methods involve clean money, the first two are totally transparent and the electoral bonds scheme is a substantial improvement in transparency over the present system of no transparency.” Jaitley has a valid point. But even this method is not perfect.
I have absolutely no hesitation in concluding that a wrong is a wrong whether it is a smaller or a bigger wrong. The present system of electoral bonds may be definitely a better alternative than the earlier one but even this too has many shortcomings. These shortcomings too needs to be removed and the system of electoral funding must be made totally transparent with no room for secrecy of any kind!
To be sure, Jaitley has rightly said in a Face book post that India has not been able to evolve a transparent political funding system, despite being the largest democracy in the world. But now his government has been in power since the last four years. So he cannot offer any excuses for India not having been able to evolve a transparent political funding system. It is the bounden duty of his government to make sure that the system of poll funding is made totally transparent and there is no room for secrecy of any kind in any form which will only serve to further enhance the reputation of his government in the Centre!
According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), almost 70 percent of the Rs 113 billion of party funding received over an 11-year period came from unknown sources. What makes matters even more worse is that the Centre in 2016 retrospectively amended the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) to redefine the status of London-headquartered multinational Vedants, which had contributed to the BJP and the Congress party after the Delhi High Court held that both parties – BJP and Congress were guilty of violating FCRA rules. Neither party has been made to penalize for this blatant violation of all rules!
How can this be ever justified? Who can justify the decision to not disclose the names of donors under the electoral bonds scheme which will only serve to promote the dangerous trend of opacity in political funding? How can this be denied that most private donors prefer anonymity for fear of reprisals from political parties and they would still prefer to continue with cash donations under the Rs 2000 slab as is enumerated under Section 29C of the Representation of the People Act as also via electoral trusts as it is here that anonymity is better maintained?
Why Centre is just aiming to reduce the big role that unaccounted cash has in the electoral process of electing candidates? Why Centre does not care to do more to address the need to have public accountability of sources of political funding? Why Centre has drawn a Lakshman Rekha that this naming of donors can never be done?
Why Centre is not ready to bring in more transparency rather is seen to be eschewing transparency in this new method of electoral bonding? Why all the great legal luminaries in the Cabinet of Centre have failed thoroughly to work out on this in a satisfactory manner? Why is Arun Jaitley expecting the people to do the homework on this score?
He himself is such a great legal luminary! Why can’t he work out himself a fair and transparent system of electoral funding? Why can’t a roadmap be put forward by Centre with clear timelines and with the ultimate aim of ushering in complete transparency in the system of political funding?
Why Centre fails to appreciate that just introducing electoral bonds will not usher in transparency in the electoral system unless accompanied by other corollary measures? Why there is no clarity right now on how much a party or a candidate spends in an election and from where all they get funding for fighting their elections? Why there is no mechanism to monitor the spending of money by parties and candidates during elections?
Why parties are not asked to show their source of funding which are dubious in many cases? Why no strict penalty is imposed against any political party who is found to have acquired huge money from “unexplained sources”? Why political parties are exempted from disclosing the name of donors received from foreign countries?
Unless this is done, all other steps will prove to be “an exercise in futility”! Also, foreign countries by donating lavishly can subjugate our country indirectly and remote control them through their representatives in Delhi! Who can deny this possibility can never happen under any circumstances?
Most importantly, what is the harm in displaying total transparency? Why politicians don’t learn even after massive scams are unearthed as we saw involving various banks primarily Punjab National Bank where we saw open loot of more than Rs 20,000 crore and this figure could further rise high and which started in 2011 when previous UPA government was in power and continued till 2018 four years after present NDA government came to power which could never have taken place without the active blessings of senior politicians occupying key posts in the Centre? Why they want to keep secret whatever they do while demanding total transparency from the public? With what face?
It is high time and if this nation is to be saved from being doomed, there should be total transparency in all dealings including those pertaining to politicians and those found indulging in corrupt practices must be punished with either death or life term and nothing else! They should never be allowed to flee India as we saw most unfortunately when Vijay Mallya fled and now when Nirav Modi and all close to him have fled without being stopped or detained by anyone! They must be made to pay for their misdeeds instead of first allowing them to flee and then fighting legal cases abroad and wasting huge money in it by hiring expensive lawyers etc and still seeing those fugitives laughing at us and making a complete mockery of our law and legal system! For this to happen, we need honest leaders and they can never come to power if this complete secrecy in unaccounted political funding continues unabated in one form or the other!
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,
s/o Col BPS Sirohi,
A 82, Defence Enclave,
Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,
Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.