The Supreme Court has asked all political parties to submit details, including bank account numbers of purchasers of so-called electoral ‘bonds’. We welcome this as a step towards greater transparency in electoral funding. These bonds, unlike government or corporate debt, offer no return and no repayment.

They are akin to purchasing pre-paid mobile cards, where the payment is made to the State Bank of India (SBI), which issues an electronic stamp indicating which account the cash is to be debited from and credited to which party. Neither name of donor nor recipient are mentioned, but encoded.

This guarantees total anonymity to donors, though each party has to reveal the total amount received to the Election Commission (EC). As of today, according to filings compiled by ADR, an organisation dedicated to electoral reform, the BJP has received little more than 95% of such donations. All others account for the rest. If anything these ‘bonds’ are less transparent than the election funding ‘trusts’ set up by the UPA, where account payee cheques were to be issued to trusts: any serious scrutiny could verify donor and recipient.

The government’s top lawyer has asked why voters need to know the identity of who donors. The answer is simple: in a democracy where many business fortunes depend on the whims and preference of government, it is a good idea to know which company or promoter or trust has contributed most to funding the campaign of which party.

This is not a secret in the US, where voters know Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, one of the richest men in the world, is a big financial benefactor of Democrats; or that energy giant ExxonMobil backs Republicans.

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The Federal Election Committee (FEC), America’s counterpart of our Election Commission has records of 32 million big donors – companies, shareholders and employees – to each party over the last 10 years. This includes family-controlled firms like Johnson & Johnson.

We, as India’s voters and stakeholders in society, economy and the environment, have every right to have access to the same data, if only to gauge the direction policies are likely to take under which administration.

Two, the SC and EC must also monitor spending by each party during campaigns. The EC has ceilings – ridiculously low – for how much each candidate may legally splurge on her campaign, but this ceiling does not apply to parties. Once expenditure details are matched with donations declared by each political outfit, any discrepancy – spending that is higher than declared receipts – will qualify as ‘suitcase’ money.

Critics might point to the difficulty of measuring spending, but that is a matter of detail. The intent – to reform and cleanse campaign finance of slush funds is a noble goal that should be pursued.





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