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New Delhi: Even as the Supreme Court is yet to take up for hearing a pending plea challenging the electoral bond scheme, latest data from the department of economic affairs (DEA) under the Union finance ministry has revealed that the sale of bonds has now crossed Rs 10,000 crore.
Several transparency activists, organisations and political parties have over the years expressed concern about the “opacity” around these bonds, as the identity of donors purchasing them remains a secret.
Donations touch Rs 10,246 crore
According to Right to Information (RTI) activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (retired), who has been tracking the sale of these bonds and their redemption by designated branches of the State Bank of India, the sale of these bonds reached the milestone of Rs 10,000 crore during the 21st Phase under which they were sold from July 1 to July 10.
As per the reply he received from DEA, the sale and redemption of these bonds took place in seven of the 29 authorised branches of SBI. So far, in all the 21 phases put together, electoral bonds worth a total of Rs 10,246 crore, or Rs 102,46,22,51,000 to be precise, have been sold.
The sale of these bonds takes place in the denomination of Rs 1,000; Rs 10,000; Rs 1 lakh; Rs 10 lakh; and Rs 1 crore. A total of 18,779 electoral bonds have been sold since the scheme was notified in January 2018.
Following the release of information about these bonds, Batra said “all eyes are on the Supreme Court that is to hear the ADR case for a stay of EB Scheme 2018”.
Concerns over ‘opacity’ of donations
While the electoral bond scheme was introduced with the Finance Bill 2017 and notified in January 2018 to provide funding to political parties which secure not less than 1% of the votes polled in the last general election to the Lok Sabha or a state assembly, the manner in which it allowed anonymous donations, most of the funds went to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had raised eyebrows.
The first to raise a red flag was the Election Commission, which in 2017 itself had raised serious concerns about the scheme. Subsequently, a number of petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court since 2018 challenging its legality. The apex court has twice refused an interim stay on the scheme as sought in its petition by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had in July 2021 moved Supreme Court seeking an urgent hearing of a batch of petitions that had challenged the constitutional validity of the electoral bonds scheme. In its petition, the Left party had stated that the matter pertained to “the right to know and have information of who, rather which entities/corporations are funding our political parties, potential quid pro quos, corruption, etc”.
“It is important for a functioning democracy to have a transparent system of political funding. Since the adoption of the Electoral Bonds Scheme in 2018…there has been a massive amount anonymous donations which challenge the very core of our democratic functioning,” the CPI(M) petition had said.
Subsequently, CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury has on multiple occasions – the last being December 30, 2021 evening – tweeted the need for an urgent hearing in the matter. In the tweet, he said while the petitions remain unheard for more than three years, this had permitted BJP “to display obscene money power”.
Pleas in Supreme Court on electoral bonds
While the petitions are waiting to be heard, Chief Justice N.V. Ramana had in April told senior advocate Prashant Bhushan that the court “will hear” the electoral bond matter. As Bhushan submitted that there was a news that a company in Kolkata paid Rs 40 crore to avoid a raid and charged that the electoral bond scheme was “distorting democracy”, Ramana assured, “We will hear it.”
The petitions by two NGOs – Common Cause and Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) – challenging the scheme are pending before the apex court.
In March 2021, the Supreme Court dismissed ADR’s plea to stay the fresh sale of electoral bonds and held that “it is not as though the operations under the Scheme are behind iron curtains incapable of being pierced”.
It also observed that bonds were issued in the past “without any impediment” and that it had already ordered “certain safeguards” by way of an interim order on April 12, 2019. This interim order, also on an appeal by ADR, had directed the political parties to “forthwith” submit details of electoral bonds received and encashed by them to the Election Commission.
But the court’s observations and rulings have thus far not been able to satisfy the petitioners since the issue of how the identity of the donors would never be known to the public under the scheme remains unresolved.