ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Transparency and Electoral Bonds

Will transparency foster accountability in India’s electoral system?

 

Why is there a renewed outcry about the soundness of electoral bonds now? Did we not know that the very inception of this instrument rode on the back of several contravening legislative actions taken by the ruling government? Recall the Election Commission’s letter to the Ministry of Law and Justice, dated 27 May 2017, which warned that the amendments to the Finance Acts would abet money laundering through shell companies; or those public interest litigations filed in 2017 by two Delhi-based civil society organisations, which debated that the response to a money bill for amending the laws regarding electoral funding undermines the legislative scheme as envisaged in the Constitution. Were we not aware that these legislative actions would not only trample the official dignity and constitutional sanctity of apex institutions of governance, but also destabilise several fundamental principles of polity?

Despite almost ubiquitous scepticism, the electoral bonds have prevailed. And, that too, almost solely with the backing of the ruling government’s rhetorical claims of “transparency of political funding system,” “clean money,” and “donor’s anonymity.” What had rendered such power to this rhetoric that it could make the highly palpable logical incongruity of these claims go unreckoned? If transparency is the quality of being easily seen through, then it cannot be compatible with anonymity, confidentiality, or impersonality. Again, corruption—whether due to impersonal market-like transactions or conditional on the social networks between bureaucrats and private agents—is potentially stimulated under conditions of opacity or obscurity, which is compatible with anonymity, in essence. Then, the cleansing of (black) money remains elusive.

If the lack of hard evidences is the cause of the public oversight of such inherent futility in the government’s claims, then the HuffPost’s current investigative series on electoral bonds is indeed an icebreaker. These reports have provided some empirical validation to the cynicism pervading the public mind regarding this funding instrument. But, the moot question persists: Can these evidences articulate a political discourse that will go beyond merely “blaming” the current government of distorting the democratic ideals of fair competition? This concern prevails for various reasons.

The first is the very nature of India’s electoral democracy, wherein money is emerging as a more dominant instrument for power-grabbing vis-à-vis political ideals and/or policy proposals. Consequently, when corrupt political funding is rife, the impending challenge for political opponents is to ensure their presence in a severely skewed playing field. In such scenarios, any distinctively nuanced political language of opposition is the least likely to thrive.

Second, historically, electoral funding in India has evidenced the issuance of special bearer bonds to make possible open investments of undisclosed past incomes. Popularly known as “voluntary disclosure schemes,” these had facilitated the foray of black wealth into the public coffers. Such schemes naturally came with assurances of immunity from a gamut of taxes on income, wealth and gifts. Even more recently, the United Progressive Alliance government had devised the electoral trusts to shield its corporate donors from exposure. With such precedences of immunity for black income holders, it may be difficult to indict the current government, in particular, of corrupting political funding through its electoral bond scheme.

Third, the ruling government’s endeavours to give retrospective effect to the revised definition of “foreign sources” of political funding from the date of promulgation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), 2010, and subsequently the repealed FCRA, 1976, through its Finance Acts of 2016 and 2018 respectively, have provided respite even to its political opponents. For instance, in the case of Association of Democratic Reforms and Anr v Union of India and Ors (2014) the Delhi High Court had found that both the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party were illegally holding foreign contributions from Vedanta Resources. When the amendments to the FCRA can come to their rescue, why would the opposition parties want to dissent from an obliging government?

In the absence of (political) opposition, even the strongest evidence of mala fide stands to lose traction. This plausibly explains why the government does not seem much perturbed by the exposure of its wilful execution of the electoral bond schemes. While evidences may have forced the government to accept the blame of disrupting transparent electoral systems by distorting information on political donations and their intended beneficiaries, whether such admission of blame can actually shame it is anyone’s guess. Transparency can mobilise the power to shame, yet shamelessness may not be vulnerable to public exposure.

This is not merely because the electoral system in India has been historically fraught with malpractices—such that indulging in similar corruptions does not make a particular government stand out from its predecessors—but, because transparency’s effect on political accountability is not straightforward in reality. For, transparency is a graded concept with varying degrees of opacity and clarity. When viewed in such a spectrum, one finds that the ruling government has lent an opacity or fuzzy transparency to the mechanism of electoral bonds—by assuming a “proactive dissemination” of information—instead of the commonly alleged “zero” or no transparency.

While fuzzy transparency cannot elicit institutional “answerability,” neither can mere answerability ensure any hard accountability. Though civil society organisations proactively push for the democratic right to information and transparency to make public institutions accountable, one must realise that hard accountability is a systemic issue. It involves going way beyond the trope of transparency, and addressing the nature and capability of the governing regime and civil society to capacitate the institutions of public accountability.

Updated On : 4th Dec, 2019

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top