The Supreme Court on Friday turned down a plea for interim stay on electoral bonds. The top court directed the political parties asking them to furnish details of money received through electoral bonds and identity of the donors by May 30.
The details of donation received by the political parties have to be submitted in sealed cover. The court said the Election Commission of India will keep the record of the money received through electoral bonds by the political parties.
The Supreme Court also directed the finance ministry to reduce window of purchasing electoral bonds from 10 days to five days in April-May. The court further said it would examine in detail the changes made in law and ensure that balance does not tilt in favour of any party.
The ruling came on a petition challenging the validity of electoral bonds, which allows anonymous donations to political parties. The government on Thursday had told the court that it is not necessary for voters to know the identity of contributors.
This is an interim direction with the top court stating that time is not sufficient to have a detailed hearing on the matter. The Supreme Court, however, observed that the contentions submitted by both parties give rise to weighty issues and have a tremendous bearing on the sanctity of the electoral process.
A bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi was hearing the plea filed by the CPI(M) and Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), a non-governmental organisation. The bench concluded the hearing on Thursday and reserved its order on the plea.
The NGO, which has challenged the validity of the scheme, has sought interim relief, including that either the issuance of electoral bonds must be stopped or the names of the donors made public to ensure transparency in the poll process.
The CPI(M) in its petition claimed that the non-disclosure clause would add to the woes of Indian democracy. A bench headed by the then Chief Justice Dipak Misra issued a notice to the government in the case in October last year.
On Thursday, the government had also seemed to suggest that such transparency in election funding was impractical. Attorney general KK Venugopal said donors would be victimised if their details are made public.
He had added that this was against the right to privacy asserted by the nine-judge bench judgment in the Puttuswamy case. The central argument of the government’s top law officer was that the main purpose of electoral bonds was to curb the use of black money in elections.
Earlier, the AG argued that in the absence of state funding of elections, private contributions were the only source for political funding.
The Election Commission informed the bench that it has received information from political parties on how much donations they have received in the form of bonds and handed over details to the court.
The Election Commission and the central government have submitted their divergent views on the issue in writing to the court. The government has justified the bonds, saying it will promote transparency in political funding and according to the commission, the changes made in the law would have “serious repercussions”, making election funding opaque, and, further, making Indian elections vulnerable to foreign interference.
Electoral bonds were introduced after changes in the Finance Act 2017 as well as related amendments in the Income Tax Act, the Reserve Bank of India Act, and the Representation of People Act. Individuals, as well as foreign companies, can buy electoral bonds.
When the bonds were announced in 2017, the poll body differed with the Centre’s view that their introduction would make the process transparent.
The government notified the Electoral Bond Scheme 2018 on January 2, 2018. As per provisions of the scheme, electoral bonds may be purchased by a person, who is a citizen of India or incorporated or established in India. A person being an individual can buy electoral bonds, either singly or jointly with other individuals.
Only political parties registered under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and which secured not less than one per cent of votes polled in the last general election to the House of the People or the Legislative Assembly of the State, shall be eligible to receive electoral bonds.
Electoral bonds shall be encashed by an eligible political party only through a bank account with authorised bank.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the biggest beneficiary of the electoral bond scheme in 2017-18, receiving bonds worth around Rs 210 crore of the Rs 215 crore issued. As per the audit and income tax reports submitted by the party to the Election Commission, it earned Rs 210 crore through electoral bonds.
The Congress, which earned Rs 199 crore as income in 2017-18, got only Rs 5 crore in donations from electoral bonds.