By K Raveendran
The Modi government has perfected the art of using a safeguard against something to perpetuate exactly the same act or tendency. So, national unity is cited as the reason for attempts to wreck national unity and national interest is taken to mean the interest of the ruling party, especially when there is a conflict between the two.
The most classic case is that of the electoral bonds. Though the idea behind the original legislation was to curtail the use of black money in elections, the law, as it has been finally made, promotes black money and additionally in favour of the ruling party, as if BJP is a permanent feature of power politics for all times to come. Regrettably, the highest court of the land has facilitated this most undesirable tendency by refusing to intervene decisively. It is as though it has become a regular practice for the Supreme Court to look away when inconvenient matters are brought to its attention, especially when it concerns the government.
The Supreme Court last week refused to stay the sale of a fresh set of electoral bonds from 1 April, ahead of assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and UT of Puducherry. Accordingly, a fresh round of bonds has been launched and obviously the ruling party will lionise the proceeds from the sale, which has been the case right from the beginning. With an authoritarian government at the Centre, it cannot be otherwise, putting the other parties to great disadvantage in terms of ‘entitlement’.
The Supreme Court has been dilly-dallying on the issue ever since a number of petitions were filed challenging the electoral bonds scheme far back as in 2017 itself, when the new scheme of things was announced in the Finance Act 2017. The petitions had raised several valid questions about the possibility of abuse of the system, but the court refused to effectively intervene, allowing the government to go ahead with the issuance.
Even the latest refusal of stay is apparently on a most flimsy ground: that the “bonds are released at periodical intervals in January, April, July and October of every year; that they had been so released in the years 2018, 2019 and 2020 without any impediment.” It has promptly refused to grant the stay and put off detailed hearing of the case as if the issue under consideration is trivial and not meriting any urgent attention. The terse order for not taking up the hearing is even more insulting: ‘The application could not be taken up for hearing’.
The court may be justified in refusing to entertain the plea of a few concerned citizens, but most unfortunately, it has dismissed the objections raised by the Election Commission, admittedly the most authentic body that understands elections, irrespective of its perceived soft corner for the ruling party, that the anonymity provided for in the bonds would breed corruption and cuts at the very root of transparency in election funding.
An affidavit filed by the Election Commission even termed introduction of electoral bonds a retrograde step. The commission expressed concern over the non-disclosure of donor identity and clauses that may allow for shell companies and foreign entities to fund and influence Indian political parties and elections.
The commission argued in favour of transparency in political funding, saying the disclosure of the identity of the funders as well as the recipients of funding was essential for the success of democracy. The counsel for the commission also pointed out that people have the right to know about the antecedents of their representatives and the political party that candidate represents.
There were also other complaints about the bonds. Even the RBI had described the system as a type of ‘type of weapon or medium for financial scams’. This clearly gave credence to the fears of the petitioners that electoral bonds had turned into a tool for receiving bribes in the garb of donations for the ruling party.
But the court refused to entertain these apprehensions and preferred to go with the government argument that the bonds are meant to eradicate black money in political funding and that many companies prefer anonymity for various reasons, one of the most officious of which having been that the shareholders could punish a company if the party it funded did not come to power.
The result has been on predicted lines: Most of the proceeds of electoral bonds have gone in favour of BJP and other parties, including the main opposition Congress, are starved of funding to the extent that they are virtually left with no money for an effective campaign.