The presentation of the Budget for 2017-18 by finance minister Arun Jaitley had a small section on reforming political funding which had raised hopes, but with the passing of the Finance Bill on Thursday there remain few signs that the government means business in bringing transparency to the funding of elections and our political parties, which, alas, have become a key source for the generation of black money in the country — making our democracy a somewhat tainted one. The finance minister rejected the amendments to the Finance Bill passed by the Rajya Sabha, where the government doesn’t have a majority, including to make political and electoral funding more transparent by placing a cap on donations of 7.5 per cent of profits. This was a pity.
The government could have argued for a higher cap or no cap, but it rejected the proposal outright. Perhaps it just wanted to send the political signal that it won’t accept any suggestions from the Upper House as long as it was Opposition-dominated.
Major corporate donations tend to go to ruling parties at the Centre and in the states. This may have inspired the Rajya Sabha amendment which, in principle, is hardly nonsensical. It had also sought ending the anonymity of donors. Transparency can hardly be expected if this does not happen as big donors can dictate economic policies for favours rendered and remain hidden.
In the Lok Sabha debate, Deepinder Hooda (Congress) sensibly argued that there was no reason to retain any move to open up the political funding issue as a part of the Finance Bill as this was in no way related to withdrawals from the Consolidated Fund of India. He also urged the government to bring a separate bill on this. As assurance from the government in this respect would have sat well at a time when there is so much talk of curbing black money and reform political funding, but there was none.
The finance minister asked the Opposition parties to suggest ideas on this score, but failed to delineate anything itself. This was surprising since he openly acknowledged the “harsh reality” that “we continue to do politics on the basis of undeclared money”.
The neat passage of the Finance Bill in the Lok Sabha, given the government’s crushing numbers, suggests that we should not expect anything much further on political funding reforms in the course of the year.