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Centre, Election Commission take opposing stands on electoral bonds in Supreme Court

BusinessToday.In     April 11, 2019

Electoral bonds were introduced by the Modi government in the last fiscal as an alternative to cash donations made to political parties. The idea was to increase transparency in political funding and curb usage of black money, but the instrument now finds itself in the centre of a major controversy over allegations that it is not only skewed towards the ruling party, but flouts the concept of free and transparent elections.

The Centre and the Election Commission took contrary stands in the Supreme Court on Wednesday on the matter of electoral bonds, with the government wanting to maintain anonymity of the donors while the poll panel batted for revealing the names of donors for transparency. A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi is hearing a petition filed by NGO Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) seeking either a stay on the issuance of electoral bonds or that the names of the donors be made public as interim relief.

According to India Today, the non-profit election research group dug through the tax declarations of various political parties to the Election Commission to prepare a report revealing that that shows funding through electoral bonds is skewed heavily towards national parties, with the BJP walking away with the lion's share. Of the Rs 215 crore generated through this route in 2017-18, the ruling party secured Rs 210 crore and the opposition Congress Rs 5 crore, the ADR report added.

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During the court hearing, activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the NGO, referred to the alleged deficiencies in the electoral bonds scheme and said that it was a "retrograde" step as it was against the concept of free and transparent elections. He added that the instrument may be the "kickbacks" to the ruling political parties and referred to the replies of the Election Commission underscoring that the changes made in the law will have serious repercussions on the transparent funding of political parties.

The poll panel, represented by senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, argued that it was not against the instrument as such, but had opposed the "anonymity attached to it" from its very inception. Dwivedi added that the scheme "legalises anonymity" but the right to vote means making an informed choice - knowing the candidate was only "half of the exercise" and citizens must know the parties which are funding the candidates.

"Anonymity must go. We want transparency. We want reforms. We cannot go one step forward and two steps backwards. We want free and fair polls," said the senior lawyer. The poll panel also claimed that electoral bonds made the commission's job of tracking donations from overseas and government companies - both legally barred at present - rather difficult, The Economic Times reported.

The government, on its part, submitted that the scheme was meant to "eradicate black money in political funding" - India's election expenses are among the highest in the world - and donor anonymity was necessary to ensure that funds flow in to meet the country's burgeoning poll expenses. "We have no policy of state funding of elections. Funds are received from supporters, affluent persons and companies. They all want their political party to win. If their party does not win then they apprehend some repercussions and hence secrecy or anonymity is required," Attorney General KK Venugopal told the bench, which also comprised Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna.

"Real purpose of the entire scheme has been to curb the black money in the elections. Mind boggling amount of black money had been used during elections and donations were given in cash. Now under this scheme, payments are made through proper banking channels," Venugopal explained. Referring to reports, he claimed that over 43.8 per cent of total spending in Lok Sabha polls used to be black money and this scheme would curb this effectively. He added that the allegations that nobody would know about the donors was wrong as the Income Tax department any time get this information.

The government counsel is reportedly expected to provide more details on the subject when arguments resume today.

(With PTI inputs)

Edited by Sushmita Choudhury Agarwal

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