Poll watchdog, parties clueless about Jaitley’s electoral bond scheme | india-news | Hindustan Times
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Poll watchdog, parties clueless about Jaitley’s electoral bond scheme

The electoral bond scheme will up-end how corporate India routes donations to political parties.

india Updated: Apr 15, 2017 12:50 IST
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Electoral bonds can be bought and deposited in the account of a beneficiary political party without disclosing the donor’s identity.
Electoral bonds can be bought and deposited in the account of a beneficiary political party without disclosing the donor’s identity.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s ‘electoral bond’ scheme will up-end how corporate India routes donations to political parties, with profound implications for democracy; yet the Opposition and the Election Commission — the primary check on executive overreach — are yet to muster a response.

In Finance Bill 2017, ratified by Parliament in this budget session, the government lifted a long-standing cap on the amount of money a single company can contribute; removed provisions that required companies to disclose the recipients of their political donations, and introduced electoral bonds - a new financial instrument, issued by the Reserve Bank of India, which can be bought and deposited in the account of a beneficiary political party without disclosing the donor’s identity.

The government then asked parties to submit suggestions on how to implement the scheme, yet none have responded thus far.

HT spoke to the Congress, Samajwadi Party (SP), Janata Dal (United), Trinamool Congress and Communist Party of India (CPI) — to find out their position on the matter.

“No,” said a former Congress minister when HT asked him if the party had discussed the proposed changes in political funding rules.

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“We are totally opposed to corporate funding. What we need is state funding of elections,” CPI’s D Raja said, adding poll bonds sounded ad hoc and the government was not clear on them. Regional players such as the Trinamool and the Biju Janata Dal, too, favour state funding.

“We are in favour of clean and transparent system but we cannot overlook the fact that a donor would want to remain anonymous for various reasons — primarily because they don’t want the government or the opposition to arm twist them,” said a senior BJP leader on why government was still allowing cash donations.

Representatives of other major parties said they were yet to consider the matter.

In March, chief election commissioner Nasim Zaidi told HT that the proposed bonds are a good initiative, but the commission has not received any formal communication from the government. The EC did not respond to concerns the new scheme might give corporations and rich individuals undue influence over the democratic process.

“We will be able to comment only when we receive the scheme,” said a senior EC official on the condition of anonymity.

But former chief election commissioner SY Qureshi was critical of the government move.

“The removal of the cap on donation has serious implications. The more money companies put into politics, the more they will play politics. This is detrimental to democracy,” Qureshi said. “Let companies donate to a national electoral fund that will disburse money as per a transparent formula.”

With the bill ratified by Parliament, Qureshi said, the only hope was that opposition parties would push the government to implement the scheme in a transparent matter.

Yet, past precedent suggests his hope is misplaced.

In 2013, for instance, the 20th law commission sought suggestions from citizens, the EC and political parties on issues such as de-criminalising politics, state funding of elections and political donations. The Congress and the little-known Welfare Party of India were the only political parties to respond.

Streamlining the funding will need political will, former chief election commissioner HS Brahma said, adding norms should be laid out for collection and spending of money.

Jagdeep Chhokar of the Association for Democratic Reforms agreed with Brahma. He said the lack of a cohesive stand was in sharp contrast to the unity political parties had shown in demanding a rollback of electronic voting machines.