The way the bonds are being introduced for political contributions cannot help in making political funding more transparent.
The issue of reforms in Indian elections hogs the limelight of discussion in political circles quite often, touching upon various issues. In the past few years, the discussion about such reforms have revolved around the need to work towards the holding of simultaneous elections to the State Assemblies along with the Lok Sabha. This new dimension of reforms has been discussed much more than any other aspect, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself showing a keen personal interest in bringing this about. This issue has been emphasised so much that even election commissioner Om Prakash Rawat has recently remarked that the Election Commission would be logically ready to hold simultaneous polls by September 2018, but it was for the government to take a decision and make necessary the legal changes.
Equally important have been the discussions on bringing about reforms to not only usher in transparency in electoral funding but to curb the role of money power in Indian elections, more so to minimise the use of black money. In this regard, the government has suggested the introduction of electoral bonds to make donations to political parties.
If there is any change which electoral bonds could bring about in the arena of political funding, it would actually make it far less transparent than what it is at present. This is not to say that political funding is transparent now — it is in a sorry state and the one big reason for people being generally unhappy about the functioning of political parties is that there is no transparency about the funds they receive. When the new BJP government came to power in 2014, it stated its commitment towards bringing about transparency in political funding in the context of bringing about reforms in Indian elections. But I fail to understand how the introduction of electoral bonds can bring about transparency in political funding in India.
The provisions state that every political party would have one designated bank account in which all such bonds would be redeemed. Anyone willing to donate to a political party can buy the bonds, which would be redeemable within six months. While the provision of buying these bonds only through cheques or electronic funds transfer would definitely help in minimising the use of black money for such donations, the very fact that the name of the donor need not be mentioned on the bearer of the bond raises questions about transparency. How can this system of contribution to political parties help in bringing about transparency if the name of the bond’s buyer is not going to be disclosed? This in fact guarantees secrecy of identity for those making contributions to political parties, rather than making it transparent. The way the bonds are being introduced for political contributions cannot help in making political funding more transparent.
Even the existing provision of making donations upto Rs 2,000 to political parties in cash, which political parties need not disclose, does not help to bring about transparency in political funding. A beginning has been made in this direction by reducing the amount from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000 which can be contributed to political parties in cash, but still this does not help bring about transparency. The best way to bring about such transparency in political funding is to put a complete ban on cash donations by individuals or companies to political parties. The recent reduction in the amount that people could donate without disclosing their identity from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000 was widely celebrated as a strong step towards bringing about transparency, but it still does not help. Lowering the amount will still allow anonymity as those making contributions in cash will still be able to do so, only, instead of giving Rs 20,000 in one go, the donor will have to make 10 contributions of Rs 2,000 each. This reduction in the amount therefore hardly helped to restrict anonymous cash donations to political parties.
What is important to bring about transparency in political funding is to put a complete ban on all cash donations, making it mandatory for all parties to receive donations only by cheque, or other modes of money transfer. There should be clear provisions for getting tax benefits for all those making such donations. The second step should be to make it mandatory for political parties to submit details of all donations received with the Election Commission and also with the income-tax department. Since the donors will be entitled to get tax rebates for all such donations, the parties would not be able to hide any donations. This would certainly help to bring about transparency in political funding.
But sadly, leaders cutting across party lines have raised a lot of concern over this issue, and while all of them claim that they are committed to promoting transparency in political funding, hardly any of them are serious about helping bring this about as they fear that any such policy would adversely affect them. Recently, some political parties have started putting details of the donations they receive on their websites, which is slightly better than not sharing any information at all, but a lot more needs to be done to bring about transparency in political funding.
If the parties were really committed to bringing about transparency in political funding, there is no reason why most political parties would be constantly opposing the idea of bringing political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information Act.