All Newspaper editorials in one place – February 16, 2024



February 16, 2024


The electoral bonds verdict is a blow for freedom of expression


Anonymous donations of high value tend to undermine electoral democracy and governance as they facilitate a quid pro quo culture involving donors and beneficiaries. In striking down the Electoral Bond Scheme (EBS) under which anyone could buy electoral bonds and donate them to political parties for encashment, the Supreme Court of India has recognised this malaise and struck a blow for democracy and transparency in political funding. The Court found that the entire scheme violates the Constitution, especially the voters’ right to information. It further found manifestly arbitrary, the amendment to the Companies Act that removed the cap of 7.5% of a company’s profit that can be donated to political parties without any requirement to disclose details of the recipient parties in its profit and loss accounts. It has also mandated disclosure of donation details since 2019. The judgment is one more in a long line of verdicts the Court has handed down to promote voter rights and preserve the purity of elections. Its earlier interventions led to the featuring of the ‘None of the Above’ option on the ballot, the removal of the protection given to legislators from immediate disqualification on conviction for a criminal offence, the mandatory disclosure of the assets and criminal antecedents of candidates in their election affidavits and expedited trials for MPs and MLAs involved in criminal offences.


The Court’s reasoning is unexceptionable. It found that the primary justification for the EBS — curbing the use of ‘black money’ for political or electoral funding by allowing donations through banking channels — failed the test of proportionality, as it was not the least restrictive measure to abridge the voters’ right to know. It has made the logical connection between unidentified corporate donations and the likelihood of policy decisions being tailored to suit the donors. The judgment is a natural follow-up to a principle it had laid down years ago that the voters’ freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) will be incomplete without access to information on a candidate’s background. The principle has now been extended to removing the veil on corporate donors who may have been funding ruling parties in exchange for favours. While the verdict may help ease the hold that donors may have on governance through money power, a question that arises is whether the validity of the scheme could have been decided earlier or the issuance of bonds on a regular basis stayed. How much of the thousands of crores of rupees given to parties under this scheme resulted in policy measures favourable to the donors or helped fund the deployment of additional campaign resources will never be known. This was a fit case for the grant of an interim stay.





February 16, 2024

Strongman at the helm

Indonesia must avoid the trap of populist nativism of authoritarian rulers


In Indonesia’s presidential election, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, a former general linked to violent actions by the military in East Timor, Aceh, and West Papua, appears likely to emerge victorious after early trends indicated more than 57% of votes in his favour. His probable win indicates a vote for continuity, as he had the torch passed to him by his predecessor, the popular Joko Widodo, suggesting that the latter’s policies on non-alignment in the strategic tussles between the U.S. and China and plans to build a new capital city, Nusantara, will be pursued as before. While full results are not expected for the next few weeks, the “quick counts”, or government-approved polling samples, suggest that Mr. Subianto succeeded in winning the support especially of younger voters, who might have been impressed by his image makeover on social media, including Tik Tok appearances hinting that he was more a friendly grandfather figure than a 72-year-old strongman leader with a shadowy past and questionable human rights record. In a sense, his political career has come full circle too, because his likely win will wipe his slate clean of memories of bitter rivalry with Mr. Widodo, to whom he lost the presidential race in 2014 and 2019. Their conciliatory moves that followed the 2019 election paved the path to political redemption and renewal for Mr. Subianto, as he was transformed from Mr. Widodo’s rival to his trusted aide and Defence Minister.


While Indonesia held out hope at the turn of the century as one of Asia’s great tiger economies with immense potential for developmental uplift impacting the lives of the poor, the persistence of populist political leadership, with echoes of the dictatorship era under Suharto, has vexed those who hoped for democracy to take deeper roots. For example, Mr. Subianto already has a reputation for pushing populist policies such as support for Islamist extremists and denigrating ethnic and religious minorities such as the Chinese and Christians. There is also an unsavoury thread of nepotism favouring the elites within political circles, such as his bringing in Mr. Widodo’s 36-year-old son, Gibran Raka, as his running mate despite the latter falling short of the age threshold to run for high public office. Indonesia is a critical nation on the global stage, not only because its strategic calculus matters to the great power game between the U.S., China, India and others but also because it is a potential ray of hope for Asian resurgence in a post-COVID world. Yet, if it falls into the trap of populist nativism heralded by iron-fisted authoritarians, its prospects for steady economic progress could be hobbled by the baser collective instincts of its polity.



February 16, 2024


SC striking down electoral bonds scheme is a landmark moment, affirms the people’s right to know


Introducing the electoral bonds scheme in Union Budget 2017-18, the then finance minister, Arun Jaitley, had underlined that transparency in political funding is fundamental to the fairness of the election process. However, rather than helping clean up the shadowy world of poll finance, the electoral bonds scheme, which Jaitley had called the first step, had, over the years, invited criticism for increasing the system’s opacity. Concerns over the scheme’s structure based on anonymous donations were voiced even by the Election Commission and the Reserve Bank of India. The bonds allowed donors and parties to keep their association hidden from the public — the State Bank of India, a government-owned bank, and not an independent institution like the RBI, could track the donations. The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the changes in the law  introduced to create electoral bonds is, therefore, enormously welcome, especially because it is anchored in the citizen’s right to know. A five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud ruled that the donor secrecy provision is “unconstitutional” and “arbitrary and violative of Article 14”. CJI Chandrachud set the tone for the verdict by stressing that, “information about funding of political parties is essential for the effective exercise of the choice of voting.” In the name of informational privacy, electoral bonds restrict the Right to Information to an unacceptable extent, the bench held unanimously.


Studies by the Association for Democratic Reforms show that the BJP garnered the lion’s share of the bonds issued in the first tranche. Analysis of declaration data shows that in the six years since the scheme was introduced, around 55 per cent of the funds extended through the bonds have gone to the BJP — Congress came a distant second with less than 10 per cent. A report in this paper in November 2019 revealed the lopsided nature of this financing system — electoral bonds with denominations of Rs 1 crore accounted for more than 91 per cent of the Rs 5,896 crore raised in the first 11 phases of the sale of bonds. All this lent credence to allegations of corruption and cronyism, and perceptions of an uneven playing field. The government maintained that donor anonymity was necessary to shield contributors from potential retribution. But as the five-judge bench pointed out, “at a primary level, political contributions… enhance access to legislators. This access also translates to influence over policy making. There is also a legitimate possibility that financial contributions to a political party would lead to a quid pro quo arrangement because of the close nexus between money and politics.” The court has also pointed out that the ability of a company to influence the electoral process through political contributions is much higher when compared to that of an individual — both in terms of the quantum of money contributed, and the purpose of such contributions.


Attempts to make political funding more transparent must continue. As the SC has said, “There are means other than electoral bonds to achieve that purpose”. The government must be guided by the principles of transparency and accountability as it gives the issue a deeper look. That’s the central message of the SC’s landmark verdict.





February 16, 2024

Back to square one

With Brij Bhushan Singh reasserting clout over game’s administration, wrestling’s bad news won’t go away


At the end of last year, when office-bearers of the new Wrestling Federation of India were elected, they included no one related to BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the erstwhile WFI chief who faces charges of sexual harassment by the country’s top female wrestlers. But at the poll venue that day, a banner hinted that Singh’s control over Indian wrestling was far from over. “Dabdaba hai, dabdaba rahega (our clout will remain)” — was the writing on a placard flaunted by one of Singh’s family members. Those fears have now come true. Last weekend, Singh’s son, Karan, was elected president of the Uttar Pradesh Wrestling Association. It’s a no-brainer that he would now have influence in the national body since the WFI is currently headed by Sanjay Singh, a close aide of his father. And with the ban on WFI being lifted by the United World Wrestling (UWW), Indian wrestling is back to square one. The two protesting wrestlers — Olympic medalists Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia — have requested the government, which suspended the WFI after Brij Bhushan continued to rule by proxy, to step in. Renewed protests loom on the horizon.


In this atmosphere of confusion and chaos, the only sport that has consistently medalled at Olympics, is suffering as its athletes are left in the lurch. In the past few weeks, there have been two National Championships — one recognised by the government. There is ambiguity over the dates, venues and eligibility for selection trials for the Olympic qualifiers since the wrestlers are unsure who is in charge — the WFI that has Singh’s men or the ad hoc committee set by the government.


For over a year now, wrestling administrators have stayed more in the news than the potential medallists at Paris. There is a real danger that wrestling might draw a blank since the wrestlers are distracted and ambiguity remains about who is in charge. While the mat-craft of young and talented wrestlers — Anshu Malik, Aman Sehrawat and Antim Panghal — ought to be the focus, the tug of war continues to push sports in the background. Poor results at Asian Games and World Championships are bad omens. With administrators busy plotting to retain their own dabdaba, the reputation of Indian wrestlers internationally continues to take a beating.





February 16, 2024

Selling point

Products don’t push themselves. As an eye-catching ad shows, it needs subversive messaging and appeals to consumers’ feelings


Even as he battled alcoholism and other personal demons, Don Draper, fictional advertising executive and anti-hero of the show Mad Men, could be counted on to come up with profound observations about human nature and the art of selling. “You are the product. You feel something. That’s what sells,” he tells his protege Peggy Olson in a season two episode, in response to her assertion — an advertising cliche, if ever there was one — that “sex sells”. On the face of it, with its wink-wink-nudge-nudge references to sex (including an image of a lock opening a key), a recent viral commercial for a sexual wellness brand, starring Ranveer Singh and adult film actor Johnny Sins, seems to conform to the cliche: It draws attention to itself by, well, talking about sex.


Look closer, however, and it becomes evident that the commercial has important points to make: About why female desire cannot be ignored and the need to destigmatise the topic of sexual health. These are startlingly modern concerns, addressed amidst the regressive setting of a saas-bahu serial. And so, through subversion, feelings — of dissatisfaction and shame — experienced by a vast number of people, are addressed. The stickiest advertising campaigns — whether they feature a girl in a polka-dotted dress commenting on recent news developments while selling butter, or an ecstatic woman dancing onto a cricket field to congratulate her match-winning partner while munching on a bar of chocolate — understand the persuasive power of appealing to “feelings”.


All feelings and enlightened discourse aside, though, any advertisement’s ultimate success can only be measured in terms of how well it does its primary job, which is to persuade consumers that its product is worth spending their hard-earned money on. As Draper put it in his hard-nosed way, “What you call love was invented by guys like me… to sell nylon.”




February 16, 2024

Junked Bonds

SC opens the door to reforming political funding by burying electoral bonds


Landmark is an overused descriptor. But there’s no other word to describe Supreme Court’s unanimous judgment declaring electoral bonds unconstitutional. SC upheld the principle of transparency in political funding. The judgment may not entirely clean up funding, but it’s a great start. Transparency is non-negotiable.


Two pillars | Any legal framework of political funding needs to account for two essential principles. First, in a democracy, voters are the most important stakeholder. Second, there can be a conflict of interest between public good and a political party’s preferences, and public good must prevail.

Opaque bonds | In 2017, four separate legislations were amended to create electoral bonds. It’s a bearer bond with many features that mimic currency. Most notable is the anonymity it provides donors. RBI expressed its discomfort, observing it dilutes money laundering laws. Election Commission also had reservations.


Perils of anonymity | Hypothetically, a purchaser of a bond could be funded directly or indirectly by other entities. Once purchased, the bonds could be traded because of the cover provided by anonymity. Finally, it could be delivered by the bearer to a desired political party to be encashed. Trails of sources of political funding were scrubbed by legislative amendments.


Two data points | 47% of contributions to parties are through bonds and 94% of these contributions are in denominations of ₹1 crore. This tells the story: anonymity rules in political funding.


Voter is supreme | This anonymity ran afoul of SC’s reading of Article 19 of the Constitution. Jurisprudence on electoral reforms has been based on the principle that information that furthers democratic participation must be provided to citizens.


Nowhere to hide | In keeping with this principle, not only has SC prevented issuance of fresh bonds, it also asked for disclosure about issued bonds. Both majority and concurrent judgments want details of encashed bonds to be made public on EC’s website by March 13.


Corporate funding | Electoral bond scheme permitted corporate funding without limits. SC drew a distinction between individual and corporate funding. It concluded unlimited corporate funding violates the right to equality. Corporate funding remains an unresolved issue in major democracies. A ban on it is neither enforceable nor justifiable. Instead, reasonable restrictions to choke funding through shell companies and mandating detailed disclosure of political funding are pragmatic options. SC has opened the way to meaningful reform.




February 16, 2024

Signal From TN

State assembly’s resolution against delimitation is reminder to handle the issue smartly & sensitively


Tamil Nadu assembly’s resolution against delimitation has no teeth – but it’s a strong signal. TN, as well as other southern states, want current ratios of LS seats across states to be maintained, even when LS seat count becomes bigger. BJP will say this is against the spirit of the principle that every vote has equal value. Southern parties will say since Mrs Gandhi froze set apportionment to 1971 census and since Vajpayee extended that freeze again, a repeat of the same strategy is no big deal.


Basically what this means is that if delimitation is to be done after 2026 after the long-delayed census happens, Centre must have extensive, cordial and creative dialogues with all stakeholders. If BJP comes back to power in LS elections this year, it must keep in mind that just because populous northern states are its strongholds, it can’t railroad south’s concerns. If some opposition coalition comes to power this year, it should similarly remember short-changing BJP won’t lead to a trouble-free solution.


This is tough – politics is polarised, federal faultlines have deepened in recent years, there are clashes over fiscal autonomy, remit of governors, roles of police and central agencies. But precisely because it’s tough, it’s also hugely important. At stake is nothing less than all round political acceptance of the electoral system at the heart of India’s democracy. Each voter matters equally in a democracy. But balance between regions is also crucial to avoid sub-national tensions from erupting. Given south’s sensitivity to gains and losses from delimitation, it will be wise for New Delhi to proceed with caution and transparency. A spirit of proportion, rather than a winner-takes-all mindset, is needed for an enduring democracy. To remain one nation, parties need to trust each other and work in collective interest.




February 16, 2024

Finally, Emperor’s New Clothes Exposed

Electoral bonds, found clearly opaque


In a democracy, elections provide a level playing field for both voters and political parties. Every vote counts equally. To keep this field on an even keel, parties must be transparent about candidates, policy and funding, enabling voters to make a sound choice. If this SOP is tampered with, democracy weakens and becomes a parlour game. On Thursday, the Supreme Court reiterated the importance of this when it ruled that the electoral bonds (EB) scheme, introduced in 2018, is unconstitutional. It emphasised that the scheme’s purpose of curbing black money doesn’t justify its infringement on information rights — essentially, on information about where funding comes from. Importantly, the court directed SBI, the facilitator bank, to make details of bonds encashed by parties public by March 6. By lacking transparency, EBs lack the very purpose they were trotted out to provide. Coming weeks before Lok Sabha elections, the court’s calling out that the ‘emperor’ was wearing no clothes, is welcome.


The scheme was never a panacea for lack of transparency in electoral funding. While buyers (individuals and domestic companies) of bonds had to submit KYC details, beneficiary political parties were not required to reveal donors’ identity, making for a convenient information cul-de-sac. Moreover, there was a question mark over the strength of the firewall between state-owned SBI and GoI. The perception that crucial donor data may slide into the latter’s proverbial hands could dissuade large donors from using bonds to donate to the Opposition. Incentivising donations to the party in power could lead to the purchase of policies and regulatory capture, and destroy the fairness of allocating resources among all parties. Ergo, weakening of democracy.


In 2017, RBI cautioned that bonds could be misused by shell companies to ‘facilitate money laundering’. In 2019, EC described the EB scheme as a retrograde step. Thursday’s order puts to rest the matter of transparently opaque EBs, even as the bigger issue of funding transparency remains unaddressed.





February 16, 2024

Stepping Up to the West Asia Plate


The headline focus of PM’s visit to the UAE and Qatar this week has been a temple in Abu Dhabi and release of eight retired naval officers in Doha who had been earlier sentenced to death reportedly for espionage. Both ostensibly important, reflecting India’s growing self-confidence and clout, Narendra Modi’s visit has, however, been most significant from a strategic perspective. India is finally taking steps to play a role commensurate to its ambitions of being a global power. It’s started to, at least, punch its weight.


India’s global engagement has traditionally been about balancing competing relationships, maintaining righteous silence and keeping its skin out of the game as much as possible. With the game increasingly pinching skin, India is stepping up to the plate. And what better place to make itself more ‘available’ than the Gulf region, where apart from a large remittance-returning diasporic population, India, as a low-middle-income country, has growing energy-strategic needs. As the only major country with robust relations with key West Asian players from both sides of the ‘faultline’, India is best placed to drive an agenda that benefits the region and world.


The October 7 attacks by Hamas put IMEC on virtual ice. With the signing of the pact with the UAE this week, New Delhi has used its clout to restart that project. Modi’s meeting with the Qatari leadership included developments in the region and ensuring stability. This is important, given Doha’s relations with Iran and Hamas. India’s engagement in West Asia is broadening and deepening, going beyond energy security and trade. It is taking on a more strategic track where the region’s stability plays a role in India’s prosperity.




February 16, 2024

Arabian delight

The upswing in India-UAE relations is extremely significant


The significance of the opening of a large temple in Abu Dhabi last Tuesday, built by the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, extends beyond religion and represents a major step forward in the relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and India. The temple was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in what was his seventh visit to the UAE since 2014, which speaks volumes about the outreach by India. The domestic political messaging of Modi opening a second Hindu temple in a matter of 20 days with elections just a few weeks away is obvious. What’s not so obvious is the international significance.


It announces to the world that the old attitudes that governed UAE-India relations are now undergoing a welcome change. If all goes well, India and the Emirates should soon go back to the old texture of the historical relationship that the entire west coast of India had with the region until the Turkic invasions into north India happened. If the earlier encounter was based on trade and culture, the later one was military and violent. The first lasted about 500 years and was entirely benign, unlike the encounters that followed after the 12th century. In other words, the Indo-Arabic relations were very different from Turkic driven Indo-Islamic ones. That said what, other than religion, should buttress this hopeful conclusion? Primarily economic relations and following that, strategic ones. The economic relations are now being strengthened, the latest brick being the signing of the bilateral investment treaty. This is a real shift in Indian policy which has been terminating old treaties en masse, 66 out of 75 have been terminated or re-negotiated. After all, the UAE is in the top four of foreign investors in India. There will now be a strong focus on energy security.


Bilateral trade, currently at about $85 billion, is expected to increase to $100 billion in a few years. It will also soon be possible to use Rupay and UPI in the UAE. In all eight agreements were signed, including the India Middle East Europe Economic Corridor. This last could be a real game changer as the main land route to the West. China, which has been struggling to establish just such a land route, will be worried by the direction in which things are moving. To help all this along, there is now the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that has been in force since May 2022.


Finally, there’s the crucial strategic aspect. It’s now been forgotten that British India provided the bulwark to the defence of West Asia. This was done via naval and army forces. While we can rule out the latter, the former is very possible now. Indeed it’s already in view. Indian help in the region could also relieve some US naval forces. Overall, as diplomacy goes, it is noteworthy that the Modi government has done a great balancing act between the Shia and Sunni countries on the one hand, and the Jewish Israel, on the other.





February 16, 2024

A vote for disclosure

Scrapping electoral bonds is an opportunity for reform


A five-judge Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court has injected much-needed transparency into electoral funding in India by striking down the six-year-old electoral bond scheme for political contributions, ruling it violative of the right to information embedded in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. In doing so, the majority court ruling has upheld the values of open and transparent governance and access to information for voters that had been infringed upon by this secretive campaign finance law. To this end, the apex court has instructed State Bank of India, the designated state-owned bank issuing these bonds, to give details of the bonds issued and bought since April 12, 2019 (when an interim order to this effect was passed) to the Election Commission of India (ECI). The ECI, in turn, must publish this information on its website between March 6 and 13. Electoral bonds that are within the 15-day validity period have to be returned.


No less significant is the apex court’s observations on amendments through the 2017 Finance Act to Section 182(3) of the Companies Act, 2013, concerning political contributions by companies. Section 182(3) required such contributions be authorised by the board, not be made in cash, and disclosed in the profit & loss account. The 2017 amendment removed the cap on donations — set at 7.5 per cent of the preceding three years’ profits — and eliminated disclosure requirements. The court raised the question of whether unlimited corporate funding to political parties violated the principle of free and fair elections and cast doubts on the potential of electoral bonds to curb black money. It also pointed out that this amendment had been introduced to align with Section 29(C) of the Representation of People’s Act, which exempts political parties from disclosing contributions received from electoral bonds and had therefore become “otiose”. In March 2023, the Association for Democratic Reforms found that more than 66 per cent of the income of seven national parties, including the ruling party, came from “unknown sources” in 2021-22; electoral bonds accounted for 83 per cent of this income.


The fact is that electoral bonds added one more element of opacity to a lax regime on political funding. Under current laws it is mandatory for parties to declare donations above Rs 20,000, a ceiling that enables large donations to be broken up into smaller undocumented denominations. In the absence of a system of independent audit of political parties, it is easy to circumvent even these disclosure rules. In 2013, the government introduced the Electoral Trust Scheme to allow not-for-profit companies to set up entities that can raise money from other companies and individuals and distribute them to political parties. These disclosure norms, too, do not require a declaration of the parent company setting up the trust. By questioning the rationale for “selective anonymity” and suggesting that corporations had a greater ability to influence the electoral process than individuals did, the court has pointed to the urgent need for an overhaul of political funding laws. This is imperative in any democracy where money remains a driver for political success. Campaign finance laws can perhaps never be perfect. But the ECI should not forgo this opportunity to try to align political donation rules with best-in-class norms of Western democracies.





February 16, 2024

Unjustified demands

Price guarantee will kill the agri market


Two years after farmers called off their protests, they are again marching towards Delhi with multiple demands. Protesting farmers want, among other things, a legal guarantee for minimum support price (MSP), implementation of the Swaminathan Committee report, loan waivers, pensions, and a doubling of the number of work days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. They also want India to withdraw from the World Trade Organization. While the government was negotiating with farmers till the press time, most of the demands lack basic economic logic. The timing is also intriguing. The Lok Sabha elections can be called anytime and laws can be passed only after the next Lok Sabha is constituted. The idea clearly is to put pressure on political parties to take these demands forward. The Congress, for example, has promised a legal guarantee for MSP.


The government declares MSP for 23 crops and purchases some, mainly wheat and rice, for distribution under the National Food Security Act and maintaining a buffer stock. It also intervenes in other commodities to support prices. However, providing a legally guaranteed price for all 23 commodities is simply impossible. The government does not have the resources to do this. A legal guarantee would mean every time prices go below the MSP, the government will have to procure because private traders will move out of the market. Logically, once private trade gets discouraged, prices will automatically fall. In such a situation, the government will have to buy everything. While there are various estimates of how much the price guarantee will cost the exchequer, to be fair, it is hard to arrive at a number. Also, how will the government liquidate the stock? The idea will destroy the market and will soon lead to shortages.


It is also worth noting that only a small proportion of agriculture and related output is covered under MSP. Some of the faster-growing commodities, such as milk and poultry, do not get support. Even for the crops that are covered under MSP, only a small minority of farm households benefit. The data analysed by economist Ashok Gulati and others, for instance, showed that for the agriculture year 2018-19, only 8.8 per cent of agricultural households sold any crop at MSP to government agencies. Further, the value of that produce was just 8 per cent of total output — crops and livestock. Thus, a price guarantee will not address the real concerns of the farm sector.


To be sure, farmers do face vagaries of weather and markets. Unfortunately, the challenges on the weather front will only increase with changes in the climate. It is therefore necessary to address fundamental challenges. To support the farm sector, among other things, the government is doing cash transfers to farmers. The scheme can be suitably adjusted to improve its effectiveness. The government can also work on a mechanism for price stabilisation, which can be used to intervene if prices go below a certain level. Further, it can avoid curbs on exports and stock holdings. A price guarantee will only create more problems. In fact, it is in the interests of farmers, particularly in Punjab and Haryana, to move away from water-intensive crops like paddy, which is depleting groundwater at an alarming pace and will soon become a crisis.





February 16, 2024

Better late than never

The SC has done a great service to the nation by scrapping electoral bonds, but it could’ve been done sooner


The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down electoral bonds as “unconstitutional” is a landmark judgement for several reasons, the main one being that the scheme, which allowed anonymous funding to political parties, clearly violated the right to information and Article 1991) (a) of the Constitution. Nothing – not even the government’s contention that the electoral bond scheme curbs black money and its circulation—can justify the encroachment into fundamental rights. The fact that it clearly means business is evident from the three directions the SC issued: All the electoral bonds within the 15-day validity period shall be returned by political parties to the purchasers; the Election Commission will make all donations public within one week of the receipt of information; and the State Bank of India (SBI) should stop issuing electoral bonds immediately and submit all details to the EC by March 6.


The only concern is the huge time taken by the court in coming to a conclusion on the issue, despite the reservations of the Reserve Bank of India, the Election Commission and civil society watchdogs. The central bank, for example, raised concerns about the possible “misuse” of the bonds, “particularly through the use of shell companies”. Yet, the court had refused to grant an interim stay on the bonds in 2020, and resumed the hearing of petitions only in 2022. Given the obviously questionable ethics in the design of the scheme, the process should have been much faster. In any case, it is now unlikely to have much bearing on the funding of the next general election, which is barely a couple of months away.


The government’s rationale for these bonds was that they reform political finance by eliminating the use of cash, and create a channel of legitimate funding for political parties. Plus, donors and receivers are assured of anonymity, which helps them avoid victimisation by any entity. Introduced in 2017 by then-finance minister Arun Jaitley, these bonds were meant to be an alternative to the growing complaints of black money flowing into political party coffers. Political parties could escape Election Commission scrutiny of these donations by claiming —disingenuously — that they mostly came in the form of cash and were below the limit of Rs. 20,000 for identifying individual contributions. In reality, however, these bonds have entrenched opacity and carry significant potential for corruption. The scale of legally permitted non-disclosures were completely out of sync with the tenets of electoral democracy. For companies, the only option left now is to revert to electoral trusts as they allow companies to maintain an arm’s length while donating to political parties, at least in terms of perception.


The moot point, however, is whether scrapping of electoral bonds would have any material impact on the fundamentally murky nature of electoral funding in India. A report of Analysis of Donations to Registered Recognized Political Parties (ADR) says the donations received by 31 political parties in the last six years were a princely sum of Rs.9,188 crore. Given that India’s elections are incredibly expensive—in fact, the 2019 general election was reported to be more expensive than America’s 2016 presidential election—the money raised through electoral bonds is loose change. So the rot is much deeper.


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