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  Opinion   Columnists  02 Mar 2024  Pavan Varma | Bonds, not black money, gone: All eyes now on EC

Pavan Varma | Bonds, not black money, gone: All eyes now on EC

Published : Mar 3, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Mar 3, 2024, 12:00 am IST

Supreme Court's striking down of electoral bonds underscores the need for comprehensive reforms to combat corruption

the Supreme Court (SC) struck down the legality of electoral bonds. That was the right decision, considering that the bonds did nothing to eliminate the deliberate opacity in the role of anonymous money in politics, except to make the donations through a bank transfer. Everything else remained the same, or even worse: The donor was unknown, the party receiving the funds unknown, the cap on amount of funding removed, and donations   from foreign sources — not allowed earlier — made unlimited. (Image:AP)
 the Supreme Court (SC) struck down the legality of electoral bonds. That was the right decision, considering that the bonds did nothing to eliminate the deliberate opacity in the role of anonymous money in politics, except to make the donations through a bank transfer. Everything else remained the same, or even worse: The donor was unknown, the party receiving the funds unknown, the cap on amount of funding removed, and donations from foreign sources — not allowed earlier — made unlimited. (Image:AP)

The nation has witnessed the complete breakdown of all ethics in the recent Rajya Sabha elections in Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. What happened in these elections is not an exception, but more and more the norm, and we are, even though the world’s largest democracy, fast reaching the sordid bottom of political unethicality. It is crystal clear that our democratic credentials are seriously threatened if comprehensive electoral reforms are not implemented urgently, and the nexus between unaccounted money and politics severed.   

Recently, after a long wait, the Supreme Court (SC) struck down the legality of electoral bonds. That was the right decision, considering that the bonds did nothing to eliminate the deliberate opacity in the role of anonymous money in politics, except to make the donations through a bank transfer. Everything else remained the same, or even worse: The donor was unknown, the party receiving the funds unknown, the cap on amount of funding removed, and donations   from foreign sources — not allowed earlier — made unlimited.

The whole scheme, as the SC averred, was a fraud played on the voter in the name of reform. But while the SC judgment is welcome, it is still not a solution to eliminating the role of black money in politics, which is the beej of all corruption in India. Merely scrapping the electoral bond scheme will take us back to the old system where cash was paid under the table, forcing corporates to resort to unethical practices which generate black money.  
The Election Commission (EC) has for long recommended several reforms. Currently, candidates are required to disclose their assets and liabilities, but not political parties. As far back as 2004, the EC had proposed that “political parties should be required to publish their accounts annually for information and scrutiny of the general public and all concerned, for which purpose the maintenance of such accounts and their auditing (by a firm of auditors approved by the Comptroller and Auditor General) to ensure their accuracy is a prerequisite”. This has never been done.  

The EC had also recommended that all payments made to political parties must be made digitally or by crossed account payee cheque, where the donor and the receiving party are known. This too has not been implemented. Given the digital revolution, why can’t we have a law that all donations to parties, of even the smallest amount, must compulsorily be made digitally, and available on a public website? Then, when parties brazenly splurge money on electioneering or horse trading, people can ask from where this unaccounted money has come from. This “crowd funding”, through transparent digital donations, is entirely implementable, and has been tested by Bernie Sanders with great success in the US presidential elections in 2016 and 2020.  

Further, the intent behind the anti-defection law has become a joke. It has become almost routine for elected representatives, individually or collectively, to randomly switch parties. Governments have been toppled by horse trading, and parties with a minority have miraculously become majorities. The entire lubricant for this shameful state of affairs is black money, running into hundreds of crores, where elected representatives allow themselves to be sold to the highest bidder. There is, in them, no pretence of fidelity to ideology, or idealism, or political loyalty, or qualms from turning overnight into an abject acolyte of the very leader or party of which they were the most emphatic critic. This deplorable state of affairs has created a sense of revulsion in the common person, where emotions swing from anger to resignation. A corrective is urgently needed to revive people’s belief in the integrity of the democratic process. There are obvious solutions, but who will take the initiative?  For instance, why can’t we have a law by which any elected representative who, after winning on a particular party symbol, changes sides will have to resign and fight elections afresh?   

The EC, has a vital role in impartially, fearlessly and rigorously supervising the electoral process, but it appears to be greatly enfeebled. The SC, in a judgment of March 2023, had proposed that election commissioners are selected by a committee consisting of the PM, the Leader of the Opposition, and the Chief Justice of India (CJI). The government, however, passed a law omitting the CJI, and made the third member a Union minister nominated by the PM. The government, therefore, will always have the majority in appointing the three election commissioners. Why should any ruling party have the right to dictate the composition of the EC, especially when, under the Constitution, it is an independent body?

An impartial and ethically inflexible ombudsman is needed for any democracy to abide by the rules of the game. The EC has this constitutional role, but if it chooses to be a largely non-interventionist body, who will ensure that the model code of conduct for elections is strictly implemented? The very first article of this code says: “No party shall include in any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different caste and communities, religious or linguistic.” The second article stresses: “Criticism of other parties or their workers on the basis of unverified allegations or distortion should be avoided.” The third is categorical: “There should be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes. Mosques, temples, churches or other places of worship should not be used as forums for election propaganda.” And the fourth states that: “All parties and candidates shall avoid scrupulously all activities which are ‘corrupt practices’ and offences under the election law such as bribing of voters, intimidation of voters…” If the EC is found wanting in ensuring the above, can the SC crack the whip, because it is its mandate to protect the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution, of which democracy — and free and fair elections — is a central pillar?

All our political parties, as part of an unstated conspiracy, have been resisting electoral reform because they have a vested interest in perpetuating the old corrupt system. Ultimately, citizens, who are the victims of this shameful state of affairs, must say: Enough is enough!

Tags: electoral reforms, supreme court of india, chief election commissioner