Source: 
Indian Express
https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/electoral-bonds-what-ec-sbi-govt-anonymous-donors-9039814/
Author: 
Damini Nath
Date: 
24.11.2023
City: 
New Delhi

The SC has asked the EC to submit data of electoral bonds received by political parties till Sept 30. Activists have pointed out that parties can tell the EC they don't know the details of the donors, who have the right to remain anonymous.

While reserving its judgment on a batch of petitions challenging the Electoral Bond Scheme, 2018, the Supreme Court on November 2 ordered the Election Commission to submit data of the electoral bonds received by political parties till September 30. The Commission was given till November 19 to collect and submit the data in a “sealed packet” to the registrar.

Some activists, however, question what the Election Commission’s reply can reveal as the political parties can tell the Election Commission they do not know the details of the donors, who have the right to remain anonymous under the scheme.

What did the Supreme Court say?

This isn’t the first time the Supreme Court has asked the Election Commission for data on electoral bonds received by parties. In its November 2 order, a five-judge Bench headed by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud noted that the Supreme Court had asked the Election Commission to produce the data of electoral bonds in an interim order on April 12, 2019.

At that time, the Election Commission had submitted the responses it received from 105 political parties, according to the EC counter affidavit obtained under Right to Information by transparency campaigner Commodore Lokesh K. Batra (retired).

Referring to the 2019 order, the Supreme Court said on November 2: “The order of this Court was not restricted to the date on which it was pronounced. If there was any ambiguity, it was necessary for the Election Commission to seek a clarification from this Court. In any event, we now direct that the Election Commission shall produce up-to-date data until 30 September 2023 in terms of the interim directions which were issued on 12 April 2019.”

What happened in 2019?

While hearing the Association for Democratic Reforms’ petition against the Electoral Bond Scheme, the Supreme Court asked the Election Commission to submit data of electoral bonds received by political parties. To that end, the EC wrote to parties on May 21, 2019, asking them to furnish details of the electoral bonds, along with “detailed particulars of the donors”, the amount of each bond, the detail of the bank accounts and the date of credit.

As per the EC counter affidavit, the commission received status reports from 105 parties as of May 30, 2019. While 105 parties submitted their reports, RTI replies from State Bank of India have revealed that only 25 political parties have opened the bank accounts necessary to receive electoral bonds. Analysis of the annual accounts of major parties from 2017-2018 to 2021-2022 revealed that the BJP received 58% of all EBs.

What do the ECI, SBI and the government say they know?

Critics of the scheme have argued that electoral bonds allow donors and political parties to keep their association hidden from the public, but State Bank of India, and by extension the government, could track the donations.

Parties only provide the Election Commission the aggregate amount of donations received through electoral bonds every financial year in their annual accounts statements. These reports are made public by the ECI after vetting. When the scheme first started, some parties declared the amount received through EBs with the added disclosure that it was via “post”, indicating they did not know the donor’s identity.

The scheme allows donors to claim Income Tax exemption. When asked how many taxpayers had claimed the exemption and the amount of tax exempted, the Income Tax Department said in an RTI reply to The Indian Express in May: “Data not available with ITD”.

Which brings us to SBI, the only bank authorised by the government to sell electoral bonds. Since the details of donors are exempt from RTI, SBI has only been providing the total number of EBs sold and encashed over the years and the number of parties eligible to encash EBs in various RTI replies. The SBI has also said in multiple replies, including to The Indian Express, that 25 parties have opened bank accounts to encash EBs. The donors are required to complete a KYC form before buying EBs from SBI.

ADR’s Jagdeep Chhokar said EC collecting data from political parties is of “no use” as parties are well within the law to say they don’t know who the donor is. In fact, he said, if the parties tell the EC the details of the donors, that would go against the anonymity guaranteed by the scheme. He said if the apex court really wanted to know, it should have asked the SBI. However, he said ADR’s argument has been that the scheme is unconstitutional, so the details of who donated to whom are not relevant to its case.

Batra, too, pointed out that the SBI, and not the ECI, would know details of donors. He said as the scheme stands today, political parties can tell the ECI they don’t know who has donated to them using EBs. And the details of the amount received via EBs is already made public every year by the EC through the parties’ annual reports.

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