By Nitya Chakraborty
The sale of the 21st tranche of the electoral bonds is on from July 1-10 this year. Earlier this year, the last sale was held for ten days from April 1-10. The Supreme Court Chief Justice N V Ramana gave an indication the same month that the SC would be taking up the pending petition challenging the sale of the electoral bonds. However, even after three months since he gave the assurance, the petition has not been taken up. The net result, the ruling party BJP is cornering a huge amount from these bonds imparting massive boost to its financial muscle, which, in turn, is being used either to fuel elections, or perhaps even topple well-functioning elected governments such as in Maharashtra.
Most of the major recognized national and state parties have submitted their ‘Annual Audit Reports’ for the year 2020-21. Data from 2017-18 indicates that the number of EBs purchased and redeemed was the lowest in 2020-21. While the three regional parties of YSRCP, DMK & BJD accounted for 75 percent of the EBs redeemed in 2020-21, BJP retains its position as the largest beneficiary with 65 percent EBs redeemed till 2020-21. The total amount received by the BJP would be around Rs. 6900 crore during this period.
As per the information received from SBI in response to a RTI application, a total of 811 EBs worth Rs. 648.49 crores were sold during the 20th Phase i.e., between April 1 and April 10, 2022. All the EBs purchased were redeemed. This is about 53 per cent of the EBs sold in the immediately preceding phase in January 2022 when EBs worth Rs. 1.21 thousand crores were sold by SBI during the 19th phase.
The 19th phase of sale was prior to the Assembly elections of five states during February-March 2022, especially in the key state of Uttar Pradesh. Now, the next assembly elections are scheduled by the end of 2022 and before that another tranche of bonds, might be released for sale.
Out of the 811 Bonds purchased in the latest phase, 640 EBs i.e., 79 percent of the total bonds were of Rs. 1 crore denomination. Comparatively, the share of EBs of one crore denomination bonds in the 19th Phase were 56 percent. In line with the earlier trends, the bonds of lower value have a lower share. During the 20th phase, 79 EBs of Rs. 10 Lakh, 55 of Rs. 1 lakh and 37 EBs of Rs.10 thousand denomination were purchased.
Earlier on March 24 last year, the Supreme Court in its hearing on electoral bonds petition expressed right concerns about the misuse of electoral bonds, but dismissed Association of Democratic Rights prayer to stay fresh sale of the electoral bonds. As a result, the bonds sale continued and BJP could mobilise huge funds in the assembly elections to the five states in February/March 2022. .
The important point which the learned judges, especially the then CJI S A Bobde, missed in 2021 hearing was that this electoral bond issue is just a small part of the BJP government’s systematic efforts since its coming to power in 2014 to steamroll the opposition parties through financial muscle and thereby ensure its governance through funding by the big corporates. In the process a unique system of quid pro quo has been institutionalised in the Indian business world, which was never in existence in this country’s history since Indian independence.
The functioning of democracy in the states in India as also at the centre is under threat due to this out-of-control money power. The level playing field has been lost for the non-BJP parties and all these have been possible due to the huge resources garnered by the BJP through corporate donations, active support of the big traders and the big funds supply by the overseas Indians close to BJP as also the VHP-dominated overseas religious bodies.
There is nothing wrong for the BJP in collecting funds from its supporters. It is entitled to do so as any other political party. But the problem is when it tweaks the laws in its favour in a partisan way through its hold over the government and makes use of the central agencies in hounding the moneyed people who, in some way fund the opposition parties.
The use of the central agencies like ED, CBI and the IT department has been so blatant that no corporate takes any risk to be involved with the Congress party, which is still the main opposition in the country. As a result, the coffers of the Congress have reached an all-time low and in many states which went for assembly polls, the state Congress units desperately clamoured for more funds as they were outmatched by the cash-rich BJP.
The electoral bonds can be purchased by the corporates, but the names will be known to only issuer, meaning State Bank of India and not the Election Commission. This means the names will be known to the central government, and thus, the very few people who dared to donate some funds to some opposition parties, will be blacklisted. The big houses are generally dominated by businessmen with Hindu faith, they have general sympathy for the BJP and that has grown in the last two decades. However, many of them also sense decline in democratic values and are interested in giving some donations to other non-BJP parties to keep the playing field level. Of course, with the electoral bonds, such an arrangement becomes increasingly risky. The corporates are scared.
The Attorney General K K Venugopal in last year’s hearing presented a misleading picture in reply to the CJI query when he said that the bonds have ensured white money, not black money through cash. The issue is really not that, the issue is transparency. Why the central government and through that the ruling party will know who has bought the bonds and in whose favour? Further, this bond can be repurchased which opens up the possibility of dubious transactions. It is a double benefit for the ruling party. These days, nobody will take the risk of doing such transactions in favour of any opposition party since it will be known to the finance ministry through SBI. There is no level playing field and this bonds scheme of 2018 is disturbing the democratic functioning in the country.
Recently, in an address at San Francisco, the CJI said that the apex judiciary of the country is bound to the Constitution and the Constitution only. That is the right spirit which should guide the Supreme Court to hear the pending petition early, so that the ruling party cannot take undue advantage of its domination to subvert the process of democracy by tweaking laws and procedures in its favour. (IPA Service)