Electoral bonds verdict: Opposition cheers transparency win, while BJP raises concerns

As Supreme Court declares the scheme unconstitutional, BJP expresses reservations about donor confidentiality and retrospective disclosure.

Published : Feb 17, 2024 23:13 IST - 5 MINS READ

Youth Congress activists protest against BJP over alleged illegal and unlawful fund transfer through electoral bonds in recent years in Kolkata on February 16, 2024.

Youth Congress activists protest against BJP over alleged illegal and unlawful fund transfer through electoral bonds in recent years in Kolkata on February 16, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

Barring the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, political parties across the spectrum welcomed the apex court order decreeing electoral bonds as unconstitutional. They also described the order as a setback to the BJP. Parties that welcomed the verdict included the Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Left parties, Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Telugu Desam Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, AIADMK, Rashtriya Janata Dal, and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

The opposition parties used different terms to welcome the verdict; some said it strengthened democracy, that people had a right to know and that it would increase the faith of people in the system. Some, like the JMM, were apprehensive that the BJP might bring in an ordinance to scuttle the verdict.

The CPI(M), one of the four petitioners to move the court for scrapping the scheme, was the only political party that had not accepted electoral bonds because it legalised corruption. Welcoming the judgement, the CPI(M) described it as a “historic verdict”. It said that the verdict had scrapped the unscrupulous scheme designed to finance the ruling party by anonymous corporate donors. It said that reforms for political and electoral funding should now be introduced to ensure transparency, clean funding, and a level playing field. Jagdeep Chhokar, the co-founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, which was among the main petitioners, also acknowledged that the CPI(M) was the only political party to challenge the scheme. ADR described the judgement as a ‘landmark’ one.

Transparency campaigner Commodore Lokesh Batra also welcomed the verdict, calling it a “victory for democracy”. Transparency makes the nation strong, he said. A relentless RTI campaigner, Batra filed several applications after the introduction of the scheme, demanding the right to know the details of the sales of the bonds. It was through an RTI application filed by the retired army man that the SBI revealed that between March 2018 and January 2024, electoral bonds worth Rs. 16,518 crore were sold in 30 phases. The ruling party alone received Rs. 1,300 crore through Electoral Bonds in the Financial Year 2022-23, according to information sought through an RTI application by Batra.

Congress welcomes, BJP cautious

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge welcomed the Supreme Court ruling, stating that on the day the EB scheme was launched, his party had criticised it as opaque and undemocratic. The Congress described the scheme as a ‘Black Money conversion’ scheme. Kharge remarked on how the Modi government, Prime Minister’s Office, and Finance Minister had allegedly exerted pressure on various institutions–including the RBI, Election Commission, Parliament, and the Opposition–to fund the BJP. The party also questioned why “95 per cent of the funding” under the scheme had gone to the BJP.

Conversely, the Congress was the second-largest recipient of Electoral Bonds, followed by the Trinamool Congress, Bharatiya Rashtra Samithi, Biju Janata Dal, and others.

While most parties unanimously welcomed the verdict, the BJP was the only party to express reservations about the order. Its leaders voiced concerns about potential victimisation of donors, particularly as the five-judge Bench had directed the SBI to retrospectively disclose the list of donors. The order stated that “SBI must disclose details of each electoral bond encashed by political parties, which shall include the date of encashment and denomination of the electoral bond”. At a press conference, BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad stated that his party would provide a detailed response as the order spanned “hundreds” of pages.

Attempting to defend the scheme, Prasad, a former union minister, argued that it was introduced to bring transparency to electoral funding and reduce cash inflow during elections. He claimed that donors desired secrecy. Regarding the opposition parties’ assertion that electoral bonds denied them a level playing field, he remarked that it was up to the people to decide who was in the field and who was out.

Ironically, a day after the verdict, the Income Tax department froze four bank accounts of the Congress party. Calling it an assault on India’s democracy, Kharge stated that the “power-drunk Modi government has frozen the accounts of the largest Opposition Party”. He expressed concern that while the “unconstitutional money collected by the BJP would be utilised by them for elections, the money collected by crowdfunding shall be sealed”. He called on the judiciary to protect the multi-party system and announced the party’s intention to ‘take to the streets and fight strongly against this autocracy.’

The matter pertained to an income tax assessment for the Financial Year 2018-19, which the party had challenged before the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal. The matter was scheduled to be heard in April, but the accounts were frozen before that. Ajay Maken, Congress treasurer, informed media that banks had stopped honouring cheques issued by the party. He stated that the party lacked funds to pay salaries to employees and settle bills. It was learned that the party had approached the Income Tax Appellate Authority, which granted it interim relief, instructing the party to maintain a lien of up to a certain amount.”

Congress Working Committee member Sachin Pilot described the freezing of the accounts as a “clear misuse of power”. He tweeted that never in the “history of political discourse has such a blatant attack of political vendetta been unleashed on another opposition party”. Pilot questioned the timing of the actions and stated that the motive was “clearly deliberate”. He highlighted that it was the BJP which had amassed 90 per cent of the money raised through electoral bonds, declared unconstitutional by the apex court the previous day. “The BJP has spared no effort to stifle opposition voices and has set a dangerous precedent for targeting opponents and undermining democratic processes.”

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