New Delhi: Though the Ministry of Finance had thought about sharing details of the electoral bond scheme with political parties and seeking the public’s comments on it, the idea was dropped after a presentation before the prime minister on August 21, 2017.
Electoral bonds are now in the eye of a storm, after a series of reports have questioned how the Modi government pushed through this mode of opaque of political funding and later broke multiple regulations. Both the Election Commission and the Reserve Bank of India had objected to several provisions of the scheme on the grounds that they would promote black money and money laundering.
According to documents accessed by right to information activist Anjali Bhardwaj, on August 14, 2017, joint secretary (budget) in the Department of Economic Affairs Prashant Goyal sent an email with the subject ‘Electoral Bond Scheme’ to another IAS officer. He said that the “FM has desired that a time may be fixed to make a presentation to PMO on the aforesaid subject”.
Original ministry note suggested sharing details with political parties, public
Subsequently, a typed noted with several handwritten remarks on it reveals that “Secretary EA made a presentation on the draft structure of the Electoral Bond Scheme to PM” on August 21, 2017. Prepared and signed by Goyal the same day, it stated that the presentation was made “with the approval and directions of FM”.
The note further said, “based on the ensuing discussion, the following broad structure of the Scheme emerged”. Under point 1 it listed 13 sub-points, with some handwritten changes to them.
A striking part of the note is that point 3 was totally struck off at the presentation. It had originally stated that “a view may be taken on following [two] issues”.
The first was “Whether consultation with political parties needs to be carried out on the proposed scheme? If yes, whether the draft scheme may be circulated to all national and state parties with a 15 days window to submit draft comments?”
The second point was “Whether the draft scheme needs to be opened to public for comments by hosting it on MoF website”.
After meeting, fresh note omitted reference to consulting parties, public
A subsequent typed note, which introduced all the handwritten changes to the original paper, omitted these two queries. This note was prepared and signed by Goyal the following day, on August 22, 2017.
RTI activist Bharadwaj says it is apparent that during the meeting with the prime minister, the decision to not consult political parties and not circulate the draft scheme to all national and state parties with a 15-day window to seek their comments was taken.
Also, she said, the note clearly reveals that it was in this meeting that it was also decided that the scheme would not be opened to the public for comments by hosting it on the Ministry of Finance website.
Political parties demanded details of scheme, got left out instead
After the electoral bond scheme was announced in the Union Budget 2017-18, several political parties had sought more details on it.
For the Congress, senior leader Motilal Vora had written to then finance minister Arun Jaitley on May 30, 2017 stating that “the budget speech indicated that a scheme will be framed by the government, but we have not been able to locate such as scheme. We, therefore, have only the budget speech and some comments that you made in April to the media.”
He had stated that Congress’s view was that “to ensure total transparency, the names of the donors and the donees and the amounts donated must be disclosed so that people will have the information.” Vora added that “we would be able to comment further only after we have studied the scheme promised to be made by the government.”
Similarly, Bahujan Samaj Party national president Mayawati wrote on May 15, 2017 that “… for the purposes of giving effective and proper suggestions it would be appreciated and helpful if you could furnish some draft proposal of the scheme as is being or has been conceived by the government”. This clearly indicated that no draft had been circulated with the political parties till then.
Likewise, Communist Party of India general secretary Sudhakar Reddy in his letter on May 25, 2017 to finance minister wrote, “I do remember your speech in Parliament… The Electoral bonds scheme was also announced without details at that time.”
But instead of including other political parties in the consultations, the Centre decided to keep them out.
Reacting to the information revealed by the RTI documents, Bharadwaj said the amendments to the Finance Act, 2017 for bringing in the electoral bond scheme were made in a surreptitious manner and the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of 2014 was not followed. Ideally, she said, under the law, comments of the public and other political parties should have been taken on board.