Fairplay, transparency and accountability are three mantras of good governance. It is a different matter that the three mantras are elusive to the powers that be. The question uppermost in our mind is: where does Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP-led NDA government stand on the touchstone of these mantras?
I am raising this question since I have been nursing great hopes on Prime Minister Modi’s public rhetoric to give the people a clean polity sans black money. Has he lived up to his commitment in this regard? This issue has to be analyzed objectively on the induction of electoral bonds in 2017.
As it is, government bodies tend to conduct themselves in secrecy, away from public gaze. There is always a credibility gap between the authorities and the people, notwithstanding the fact that India has been witnessing a communication revolution. We know information is power. However, my regret is that the quality of information available to the public is far from satisfactory.
I am raising this matter because of the absence of the three mantras in the system of governance, especially among politicians and political parties, on electoral funding.
I was, at one stage, happy when the Modi government introduced electoral bonds amidst great fanfare on the plea of bringing about transparency in the system. Electoral bonds were projected publicly as a clean replacement for in-cash donations for political parties. But, was it so? Perceptions, of course, could vary. So do responses. It was soon realized about serious flaws in PM Modi’s electoral bonds scheme. Even the Supreme Court questioned the basic soundness of the scheme following the petition filed by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR).
The central government then told the apex court that electoral bonds would ensure transparency and accountability in funding the donations received by political parties. But that was not the case. It was realized that the policy-makers at the helm have not done their homework properly, or, have gone by their own crude calculations of maintaining secrecy in this crucial area of the flow of funds for politicians and parties.
Not that the fundamentals of the scheme were not questioned then and there by the public bodies like the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the RBI. But the Modi government has its plans of raising funds. There is a clear gap between promise and performance.
The ECI dubbed the official stand on electoral bonds as “retrograde” and demanded the withdrawal of the amendments made in the Representation of People’s Act 1951 (RPA) in this regard.
Explaining the position, the ECI candidly stated: “In a situation where contributions received through electoral bonds are not reported….” It also cannot be ascertained whether “the political party has taken any donation in violation of the provisions under Section 29-B of the RP Act of 1951. The Act prohibits the political parties from taking donations from the government companies and foreign sources”.
The ECI actually went to the extent of saying that the whole exercise would encourage donations by “shell companies”. Small wonder that every provision of ensuring transparency in the system of funding, therefore, stands exposed.
The key to the bonds is anonymity of the donor. The political party is not expected to declare how much money was given to it or even given at all. It was argued by then Finance Minister Arun Jaitely in a 2018 Facebook Post query that “This (anonymity) is necessary because once this disclosure is made, past experience has shown that donors would not find the scheme attractive and would go back the less-desirable option of donating by case”.
Well, while hearing a petition to block the scheme in April, then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said: “If the identity of the donors is unknown, your entire exercise to eliminate black money becomes a futile exercise. Black money becomes white”. As for the Reserve Bank of India, top RBI officials vehemently objected to this, arguing that the “bad precedent” would encourage “undesirable activities”.
Last winter, when the government was asked about the Election Commission’s “views” and “concerns”, it stated none. This turned out to be a lie as was spelt out clearly by the ECI’s reservations in 2017. It clearly said that the anonymous bonds along with the amendments to the company donation laws will “lead to increased use of black money for foreign funding.”
The Modi government has argued for long about the necessity of hiding the identities of donors in order to encourage them to give white money. But, ironically, the donors may be invisible to everyone except the government-controlled banks like SBI. What is more, the CBI or the Enforcement Directorate can force it to turn over the required information.
It is well known that electoral bonds worth Rs 222 crore were issued in March 2017. The BJP received 94.5 per cent, that is, Rs 210 crore of those bonds. In 2018-19, Rs 6000 crore was donated under electoral bonds, of which Rs 4500 crore has reportedly gone to the BJP. Against this setting, where does the people’s power of the right to information stand?
If we closely examine the “pipelines of electoral money”, we will have reasons to feel concerned about the state of the polity. Let us not forget the harsh truth that big money spent during elections generates black money manifold.
We know that notes and votes go together in our existing electoral system. Of course, practically all parties thrive on black money because it “liberates” our politicians from the process of accountability. Who cares if the common man gets drowned in misery in the process?
I expect the Modi government to have a second look at its secretive route to electoral bonds. Fair play, transparency and accountability must be made part of our vibrant democracy that Prime Minister Modi himself often talked about!
It is regrettable that the central government has even dropped the idea of seeking views from political parties and the public on electoral bonds. In the process, a great opportunity to devise a futuristic system of good governance is being missed for want of political vision! Over to Prime Minister Modi.