Lokesh Batra: The War Veteran on a Mission To Tackle the Electoral Bonds Scheme

The former Navy officer's relentless pursuit of the electoral bond scheme has raised some serious questions which the Narendra Modi government refuses to answer till today.

“Gauri Lankesh was a journalist, she was a Hindu but she was murdered by members of a Hindutva organisation. The reason is because she was a traitor, she was anti-national and anti-Hindu. After her death, will anyone in this country have the courage to write against Modi, RSS or BJP? Whoever writes will not be spared. Along with Muslims, these traitors will also be eliminated.”

This was the gist of one of the many threats 76-year-old war veteran Commodore Lokesh Batra, now a transparency activist, received for holding power to account through the Right to Information (RTI) Act. His relentless pursuit of the Narendra Modi government’s electoral bond scheme has raised some serious questions which the government refuses to answer till today.

Unfazed by threats and intimidation, Commodore Batra says his idea is to bring about reforms through RTI. “In my view, RTI is a process that allows me to participate in governance,” he told TNM.

Commissioned into the Indian Navy on May 22, 1967, Commodore Batra served the county for 36 years in various capacities as a hydrographer. At the time of his retirement from service in December 2002, Commodore Batra decided that he would not take up any post-retirement job or join an NGO. “I promised myself that I will not take up anything and till today I have stuck to that because I wanted to do what I want to do,” Batra added.

True to his words, Batra has been running a crusade to ensure transparency in governance since RTI came into being in 2005. His RTI activism has resulted in bringing amendments to the Hindi version of the RTI Act and exposing the irregularities in police investigation in the 2007 Nithari killings that shook the country. It has also helped unearth information regarding expenses incurred during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign visits, the PM CARES Fund, and the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. The Electronic Indian Postal Orders (e-IPO) that allows Indians living abroad to pay RTI fees is also an outcome of his relentless efforts.

In 2017, in a purported bid to bring about greater transparency and accountability in political funding in India, the Modi government proposed the electoral bond scheme that ensured complete anonymity for the donor and the political party that receives them. The worrying aspect of this scheme is that it fundamentally took away the right of an Indian voter to know who donated money to a particular party and how much.

WhatsApp Message received by Commodore Lokesh Batra. Photo: By arrangement

Commodore Batra recalls what he felt when he heard the then finance minister Arun Jaitley making the electoral bond scheme announcement in the 2017 budget. “The first few sentences of the speech were like music to my ears, by the time the full picture emerged it became the other way around. It was shocking.” This prompted him to dig deeper.

The electoral bond scheme was rolled out in 2018. Since then, Commodore Batra has filed more than 80 RTI requests to dig out information about the scheme, which is opaque. As a result of his consistent efforts, he was successful in obtaining documents that resulted in a major expose on electoral bonds in 2019. HuffPost carried an investigative report in six parts about how the Modi government brought untraceable funds into Indian politics despite objections from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Election Commission of India (ECI).

“The scheme was prepared with the basic idea of not revealing the name of the donors. This was objected to by the ECI, and if that was not enough the RBI too raised objections. The present scheme is like a currency note, there is no name of the buyer and the seller. The only agency that will come to know is the Government of India. SBI is under the Government of India and regardless of which party is in power, the government is aware of who is paying whom and there are chances that the government may choke funding for the Opposition. The system is impacting each one of us,” said Commodore Batra.

Obtaining information through RTI is a continuous process and does not stop with one RTI application or a reply from a government department. In the case of electoral bonds, multiple government departments and autonomous bodies including the RBI and the ECI are involved. The former Naval officer said that whenever a reply is received from a government department, you have to follow it up because there is something new in their reply and you have to dig further.

After tracking the electoral bond scheme from its inception, Commodore Batra is yet to find conclusive evidence to show from which government department the electoral bonds scheme idea actually originated from. “Till now the Department of Revenue is silent and we don’t even know whose idea it was. Sometimes you guess it was not even the Government of India’s scheme, it came from somewhere else! No one knows whose brainchild this scheme was but it started from the Department of Revenue,” he added.

The war veteran shows no signs of slowing down. Just before sitting down for a conversation with TNM, he was busy calculating the expenses incurred by the Union government to run this scheme based on the RTI replies he received. “So far the Government of India has spent more than Rs 10.23 crore in taxpayer money to print electoral bonds and in bank commissions. Billionaires are buying electoral bonds, political parties are receiving the money and that too tax free,” he said.

Bonds worth more than Rs 10,000 crore sold

A response from the State Bank of India through RTI dated January 21, 2023 obtained by Commodore Batra – which he shared with TNM – revealed that so far electoral bonds worth Rs 11,699.84 crore have been sold from March 2018 to December 2022 in 24 phases. Mumbai, Kolkata, and Hyderabad are the top three cities that have sold the maximum number of electoral bonds. New Delhi, Hyderabad, and Kolkata are the three major cities that have encashed these electoral bonds. Delhi has encashed 65.12% of EBs, and Hyderabad and Kolkata account for the remaining 12.17% and 8.82% each.

Electoral bonds are available for purchase only at the specified State Bank of India offices in different states. They are available in different denominations ranging from Rs 1,000, Rs 10,000, Rs 1 lakh, Rs 10 lakh, and Rs 1 crore. Documents accessed by Commodore Batra from the State Bank of India through RTI show that since 2018 at least 20,734 electoral bonds worth Rs 1 crore have been sold in Mumbai, Kolkata, and Hyderabad. Out of them, the maximum number of EBs (Rs 1 crore) have been encashed in New Delhi (65.31%), Hyderabad (12.14%), and Kolkata (8.54%). The sale of electoral bonds in the highest denomination of Rs 1 crore is a clear indication that it is not being bought by ordinary businessmen but by big corporations and conglomerates.

​​According to a recent NDTV report based on disclosures made by political parties to the ECI, the ruling BJP has received a whopping Rs 5,270 crore in donations ever since the electoral bond scheme was implemented in March 2018. The principal Opposition party Congress received Rs 964 crore and West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress received Rs 767 crore.

The data obtained by Commodore Batra indicates a larger pattern in which political parties have been receiving money through electoral bonds. From 2018 till December 2022, the sale percentage of electoral bonds of Rs 1,000 denomination is just 0.01% whereas the sale of electoral bonds of Rs 1 crore denomination is a whopping 94.41%. This raises the obvious question as to who can afford to buy electoral bonds of the highest denomination, and the answer is simple – it could be big corporate houses. Then the next obvious question comes up – what do these corporate houses expect in return? This is where political parties and activists who have been opposing the opaque electoral bonds scheme look up to the Supreme Court for its intervention.

Multiple petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and NGOs Common Cause and Association of Democratic Reforms challenging the electoral bond scheme, begging for a full-fledged hearing. Offering a glimmer of hope, the Supreme Court on Tuesday, January 31, bifurcated the batch of petitions challenging the scheme into three different sets. The cases would now be heard separately by Chief Justice of India Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice P.S. Narasimha.

The data obtained by Commodore Batra through RTI has largely been quoted in the petitions challenging the electoral bond scheme in the Supreme Court. The fight to ensure transparency in the scheme has not been an easy one for the man who fought the India-Pakistan war on the Western Front in 1971. Besides threats and intimidation, the former Naval officer also has to fight against the misinformation spread in his name by anonymous social media users. When asked about the challenges he faces because of his activism, Commodore Batra said, “Strictly speaking, the pressure is from the top and when I say top it means top. They don’t want to see this kind of information in public.”

At a time when high-ranking public officials settle for post-retirement jobs, Commodore Lokesh Batra is single-handedly running a crusade to ensure transparency in a scheme that has been systematically designed to strengthen one political party and weaken India’s institutions. When asked why take panga (mess) with the mighty government, the war veteran said, “It is passion. This is how it was while I was in service too. Bringing changes in the system. If you have to participate in governance then you need information and I use RTI to get information. A number of things have changed because of RTI and somebody has to do this.”

This article was originally published by The News Minute and was republished with permission.