BJP Parliamentary Committee meeting | Praveen Jain| ThePrint
BJP Parliamentary Committee meeting | Praveen Jain| ThePrint

Just as writer Varun Grover’s poem “Hum kagaz nahin dikhayenge” – We will not show papers – has been picked up by people protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in India, those supporting the law have threatened protesters to be ready to “show their papers”. But when it comes to “showing the papers”, it is Indian political parties and the Narendra Modi government that have lagged behind in their own legal and moral commitments to share information.

The funding of political parties in India has always been opaque, with parties resisting disclosure under the law, and finding ways around it. Up until 2017, cash was the biggest gap in citizen oversight over the funding of political parties.

Under the Representation of People Act, political parties were required to disclose all donations above Rs 20,000. Many of them systematically abused this loophole, claiming that a large part of their donations came from individuals who paid less than Rs 20,000. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), for instance, has never declared a donation of above Rs 20,000 in the 13 years for which its financial information is available. But large donors to other major political parties were subject to full financial disclosure; that is how we knew, for instance, that the biggest donor to the two major parties in 2017-18 was the Prudent Electoral Trustbacked by Bharti Enterprises and others.

Also read: India now has over 2,500 political parties, some suspected of ‘black money’ operations

Electoral bonds changed the game

However, since the introduction of electoral bonds in former finance minister Arun Jaitley’s 2017 Budget, the Modi government has significantly lowered the bar for financial accountability for political parties. Electoral bonds, which can be purchased from any of State Bank of India (SBI)’s 29 authorised branches, are completely anonymous; all we are told is which party received how much. We have no legal right anymore to know who is donating these large sums to the political parties. This, even as the amount donated through electoral bonds continues to grow, as does the share of political parties’ funding covered by this anonymous source. Between 2017-18 and 2018-19, the share of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s total income from electoral bonds tripled, while that of the Congress increased from 2.5 per cent to 40 per cent. In short, political parties are pushing a growing share of their income out of public scrutiny.

Illustration: Soham Sen | ThePrint

Last week, 23 branches of the SBI replied to Right to Information (RTI) activists Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri’s requests for names of all those who have purchased electoral bonds of over Rs 1 crore by stating that “The information… cannot be disclosed as it is in fiduciary capacity, disclosure of which is exempted under 8(1)(e) and 8(1)(j) of RTI Act, 2005.” “This is a violation of peoples’ right to know. The public authority has failed to weigh the issue of larger public interest, which is mandatorily required in each case in which information is denied under section 8 of the RTI Act,” the two activists said in a statement.

Not only is it difficult now to have a sense of those business interests to whom political parties are beholden, it is also difficult to know where the interests of elected representatives lie, and, as a result, their conflicts of interest.

Also read: EC had flagged concerns over electoral bonds to Modi govt after Lok Sabha elections too

Disclosure by MPs not ideal

Members of the Rajya Sabha are required to disclose if they receive money under five heads: a remunerative directorship, regular remunerative activity, shareholding of a controlling nature, a paid consultancy, and/or a professional engagement. This Register of Members’ Interests should be public, but only became so when the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) filed an RTI application. Despite this limited disclosure (here’s a list of the much wider norms of disclosure required by other countries), there is no real action. Fugitive liquor baron Vijay Mallya’s membership of parliamentary committees that dealt with civil aviation even while he owned Kingfisher Airlines is only one such example, and there are several others.

In the Lok Sabha, the situation is even worse. MPs are only required to list assets and liabilities in their election affidavits, are not required to update these, and do not have to note any conflicts of interest. Bidi baron and BJP MP Shyama Charan Gupta got to weigh in on a proposal to increase pictorial warnings on tobacco products, which he unsurprisingly voted against, even while questioning the link between cancer and tobacco. The investigation is left to journalists; before the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Mint profiled 100 such politicians and their business interests.

Also read: BJP wanted more anonymity for electoral bonds, had advised against invisible serial number

Improve transparency

The Modi government needs to do more to take people into confidence about its own decisions. Section 4 of the RTI Act says that “Every public authority shall… publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public; provide reasons for its administrative or quasi-judicial decisions to affected persons.”

And yet, there is no voluntary disclosure of the decision-making process around major policy moves like the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status through Article 370, says information activist Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, the founder of public data portal Factly. On the contrary, the decision was announced suddenly, MPs were given only a few hours to consider the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, and communication channels in the erstwhile state were cut, the official orders for which are yet to be published.

The author is a Chennai-based data journalist. Views are personal.