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New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government has raised eyebrows by amending the controversial Electoral Bond Scheme 2018 even as pleas challenging the process to allow anonymous political donations are due to be heard in the Supreme Court on December 6, 2022.
The Ministry of Finance on November 7 issued a notification for amending the scheme to provide “an additional period of 15 days” for their sale “in the year of general elections to the Legislative Assembly of States and Union Territories with Legislature”.
The bonds under this scheme are usually made available for purchase by any person for a period of ten days each in the months of January, April, July and October, when specified by the Union government. The original scheme had provided for an additional period of thirty days, as specified by the government, in the year when Lok Sabha elections are held, while the amendment adds another 15 days.
Since assembly elections to various states and union territories are held every year, the amendment effectively means that there will be 15 additional dates annually during which the opaque bonds can be sold.
Centre amends Electoral Bonds scheme to add a period of 15 more days for purchase of bonds in the year of assembly elections. pic.twitter.com/zeagWKRAS2
— Arvind Gunasekar (@arvindgunasekar) November 7, 2022
The move comes days before the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections on November 12 and weeks before Gujarat goes to the polls early next month.
Sale of 23rd tranche from November 9
Immediately after issuing the notification, the Union government also announced the sale of electoral bonds under the 23rd tranche from the authorised branches of the State Bank of India. The notification said the sale of bonds would take place through the 29 authorised branches of the bank from November 9 to November 15, 2022.
Like in previous rounds of sale, the electoral bonds shall be valid for 15 calendar days from the date of issue and no payment shall be made to any payee political party if the bond is deposited after expiry of the validity period. The Electoral Bond deposited by an eligible political party in its account shall be credited on the same day.
Reacting to these developments, transparency activist Commodore (Retired) Lokesh K. Batra said the government’s decision is “shocking”, especially when the matter on stay of the scheme is due to be heard by the Supreme Court on December 6, 2022.
He charged that in 2018, the Union government had already allowed the “illegal sale” of electoral bonds beyond the laid down period, as specified in the notification. He said in view of the general elections to the Lok Sabha in 2019, an additional 30 days sale period was allowed ahead of the polls. Batra said it was also not clear whether the government has made the amendment to the 2018 notification in consultation with the Reserve Bank of India.
BJP getting most of the funds, scheme topped Rs 10,000 crore mark
The opposition parties have been opposing the scheme since a disproportionately large percentage of the funds through it have been going to the ruling BJP. Earlier in July this year, The Wire had reported that sales of electoral bond had already raised more than Rs 10,000 crore for various political parties.
Meanwhile, there are five petitions in the apex court challenging the Electoral Bond scheme. Among those who have filed the petitions are non-governmental organisations Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and Common Cause; and the political party and CPI (Marxist). These petitions have, among other things, sought clarity on whether introducing the Electoral Bond Scheme as a Finance Act and thereby bypassing the Rajya Sabha was justified. They have also questioned if the scheme facilitates unaccounted anonymous political donations.
SC was urged to club pleas
In the last hearing on the matter on October 14, when the matter came up before a Bench of Justices B.R. Gavai and B.V. Nagarathna, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for ADR, urged a hearing by a larger bench into three connected issues – the electoral bonds issue, whether political parties can come under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and the legality of retrospective amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).
Bhushan had also questioned if the changed norms had opened Indian elections to anonymous foreign funding. He said following the retrospective amendment to FCRA, anyone could not get foreign money. He also questioned if these changes could have been brought through a money Bill.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, who was appearing for another petitioner, had suggested that since this was an important issue, the court should consider referring it to a larger bench. Referring to Article 145, he said, constitutional important matters are to be heard by constitution benches.
Centre insisted scheme is transparent
Incidentally, during the hearing, solicitor general Tushar Mehta, while representing the Centre, had submitted that the methodology of receiving money was transparent and replied in the affirmative to a query from the bench on if the system provided information on where the money was coming from.
Mehta also claimed that this was not an election-related issue. To a query from the bench on whether the matter should be referred to a larger bench, the SG said there should be a threshold hearing before deciding on the reference.
Though the counsel for the petitioners sought an urgent hearing in view of the upcoming elections to Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat assemblies, the court posted the matter to December 6.