AA Edit | SBI can no longer avoid full disclosure on bonds

Supreme Court admonishes SBI's reluctance, demands transparency in electoral bond disclosure

The excuses that the State Bank of India (SBI), India’s largest bank in which the Union government holds 57 per cent stake, comes out with on a daily basis to dodge its responsibility of complying with the Supreme Court’s order to disclose all data, including the alphanumeric codes and serial numbers, pertaining to the electoral bonds it sold between April 12, 2019, and February 15, 2024, are unacceptable. What’s more, the information furnished appears to confirm fears expressed in the court order itself that the donations were made on the basis of quid pro quo.

The Supreme Court had to issue a third directive to the bank on Tuesday calling for full disclosure of the donor and recipient details, specifying that only this would fulfil the requirements of compliance with its original order that had held electoral bonds to be unconstitutional on the ground that the scheme violated the citizens’ right to information. A frustrated court had to remind the bank that its attitude of “you tell us to give the details and then we will give them” is by no means acceptable. The bank has undoubtedly the access to the best legal brains in the country but it comes up with arguments that would prompt a right thinking person to question the seriousness of its approach to the whole exercise. Is not SBI compromising its own impeccable professional standards?

It may be remembered that the SBI requested the court for four long months to reconcile the data of the 22,217 electoral bonds it sold during the period of reference. There is a set of two records for each bond, kept separately, and it is labour-intensive to reconcile them, the bank had offered by way of reason. In other words, the SBI had admitted in the court that it had all the details that would enable it, or for that matter anyone with the same data, to know who gave how much money to whom and at what time. It must now stop playing hide and seek with the judiciary and disclose the data, keeping in mind that the court had not taken the bait of reconciliation. Any further delay will not only invite the wrath of the court and the people, while sullying its own image as a professional entity, but the compliance with the court’s order is also its responsibility, and not a favour.

While only an analysis of the full data can throw light on whether the bond scheme was made operational with the stated intent that it was conceived, the available information already points to some murky deals. Reports have already appeared about several corporate firms that found themselves on the wrong side of the law or were under investigation by law enforcement agencies having been the biggest benefactors. There are also reports about the questionable timing of the purchases. Since the government insists on the transparent nature of the scheme, it would be in its interest, too, that doubtful deals are made public and investigated so that those who violated its very purpose are brought to book. Without such an exercise, the cleanup operation that the Supreme Court has started with respect to the scheme will not be completed.

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