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Ensuring transparency in political funding
Opinion

Ensuring transparency in political funding

Hari Jaisingh

One major grey area of India’s system of governance is the absence of transparency and accountability among politicians of political parties in electoral funding. The people have often expressed grave concern about the growing sickness in the polity, the general state of drift, mounting corrupt practices, the unresponsive system and declining ethical values. These generalized observations have thrown up various suggestions that seek modest to radical constitutional changes. Even the scrapping of the Constitution has often been mooted in favour of the Presidential form of government. Also in the air are stray thoughts for a Second Republic.

Perceptions vary. So do responses. No ready-made solutions are available, especially in view of the fact that the type of commitment necessary to tackle complex problems is lacking.

More than theoretical solutions, what is required is proper understanding of what young and old voters want. Unless our solutions reflect their genuine hopes and expectations, they are bound to fail. India is too large a nation to be moved by short-cuts and over-simplifications of problems.

Take the oversimplified matter of Electoral Bonds which the BJP- led NDA government launched with great fanfare. Later, in response to the petition filed by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), the Supreme Court questioned the basic soundness of the scheme.

The Central Government had, however, told the court that electoral bonds would promote transparency and accountability in funding and donations received by political parties. But, does this claim stand the test of logic and actual practice? Perhaps not. It appears that the policy-makers at the helm had not done their homework properly. This is clear from the Election Commission’s letter written to the Ministry of Law and Justice as far back as 26 May 2017 wherein it had underlined this to the Ministry of Law and Justice.

The EC had pointed out that the amendments made to Section 29C of the Representation of People’s Act 1951 (RPA) whereby political parties are not supposed to report to the donations received through electoral bonds would go against the very concept of ensuring transparency in political funding. In fact, the ECI has rightly dubbed this as a “retrograde step” and called for withdrawal of the amendment.

Clearly explaining the position, the ECI stated: “In a situation where contributions received through Electoral Bonds are not reported, on perusal of the contributions it cannot be ascertained whether the political party has taken any donation in violation of provisions under Section 29-B of the RP Act of 1951. It prohibits the political parties taking donations from the government companies and foreign sources”

The ECI went to the extent of saying that the whole exercise would encourage donations by “shell companies”. No wonder, every provision of ensuring transparency in the system of funding thus stands exposed. This is a pity.

Looking back, while notifying the scheme, the centre had claimed that Electoral Bonds would mainly be purchased by an Indian citizen or companies incorporated in India. It was also said that the identity of the donor will be known only to the bank, which “will be kept anonymous.

Interestingly, the biggest beneficiary of the scheme happens to be the ruling party. Most of the bonds that have been purchased in the denominations of Rs 10 lakh and 1 crore shows that the scheme with the requisite amendments of the various Acts were meant to favour the BJP since as many as 95 per cent of the electoral bonds are reportedly have been sold to the BJP. This is understandable since the corporate sector is known to tilt in favour of the ruling establishment in giving donations.

We have reasons to feel concerned about these developments if we closely examine the “electoral money pipelines”. This is not only the question of quantum but also the very dimension of the operations. This could eat into the vitals of the nation, raising the basic question of transparency, accountability.

Reversing the corruption-prone trend will not be easy. This is a gigantic task that demands right attitudes and political will to break the vicious circles of black money generation.

Viewed in this light, the administrative and electoral reforms hold the key to building cleaner polity. Fairness and fair play in the system can put a stop to the current drift in money-making devices. Instead of indulging in shadow-boxing against corrupt practices, the Indian rulers would do well to take steps which should tackle the roots of the problem. Let us not forget the basic fact that big money spent during elections generates black money manifold. We know that … and … go together in our existing electoral system. What will be the quality of our democracy conducted on dubious system or falsehood? Will not tainted money produce tainted democracy?

As it is, we find that most of our legislatures have become lakhpatis and crorepatis over the years. In this situation, where is the place for our honest citizens?

There is, of course, no Left or Right in corruption. Practically, all parties thrive on black money because it frees politicians from the process of accountability. Who cares if the common man is drowned in misery in the process? I suggest that the present ruling BJP establishment needs to have a second look at Electoral Bonds. Transparency and public accountability has to be part of our working democracy.

In this context, I wish to state that financial and electoral reforms need to be viewed in a larger national framework and not as an exercise in money making to fill personal and party coffers. Well, the world’s largest and most vibrant democracy of ours requires quality control and not double-speak and double standards!