On 3 October, the Supreme Court issued a series of notices to the Union government and the Election Commission of India while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed on behalf of two prominent democracy watchdogs; namely the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), and Common Cause.
Details of the PIL –
The PIL was filed to challenge five amendments made to the statutes in Finance Act 2016 and Finance Act 2017 allegedly opening the door for unrestricted corporate funding to politics and anonymous funding by Indian and foreign enterprises. This apart, the PIL had sought a ban on cash donations to political parties.
Reforms to clean political funding –
The Union Budget for 2017-18 devoted an entire section on issues governing political funding. New proposals such as the reduction of cash donation to ₹2,000 per person and the introduction of electoral bonds were the key highlights. Coming against the backdrop of the demonetisation drive, many thought the government of the day was serious in addressing black money challenges in political funding.
Analysing the Government’s response –
- First, while the amendment to drastically cut the cash donations to one-tenth was a welcome move, it still left enough room for political parties to misuse the amended provision, even at the cost of multiplying the number of fictitious donors.
- Second, while many hailed electoral bond as a revolutionary measure to “infuse democratic processes with white money” as it aimed at cheque and digital payments ensuring the identity of donors, its most glaring failure was anonymity. Though the scheme is still better since the identities of anonymous donors are maintained in the form of cheques and digital transactions, it hardly advances the cause of disclosure and transparency.
Logic behind the petition –
- The petitioners’ principal claim that amendments initiated via Finance Act 2017 would open floodgates for uncontrolled corporate funding. Among the known sources of donation to parties between 2012-16, corporate contribution formed a staggering 89 per cent of total contribution. It is widely known that private business and interested parties bill a large portion of donation to parties. Given the fact that states in India retain huge control over the economy and regulatory policies, they cannot afford to displease the political masters.
- Therefore, the introduction of an electoral bond with its anonymity provision as rightly alleged by the petitioners will lead to unrestricted corporate donation for quid pro quo. With the government having allowed (again through Finance Bill 2016) political donation under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, raising the prospects of outside influence, electoral bond in its present form further accelerates the role of private money in democratic process.
Way forward –
- It is here that the Supreme Court has a rare opportunity to re-energise the electoral reforms that it had initiated in the earlier decade. It needs a mention that nearly all major electoral reforms have come through judicial activism.
- Bold electoral reforms especially disclosure of criminal antecedents, submission of party accounts, disqualification of convicted MLAs/MPs, the introduction of NOTA (none of the above) among others came through judicial interventions.
In all these years, political parties have put up strong resistance to electoral reforms, notwithstanding appointing committees and commissions from time to time. There is a long history of delay, subterfuge, dilution by successive governments at the Centre, and there is amazing unanimity among political parties — left, right and centre — to stall any possible progressive reforms to bring greater transparency and accountability in political donations and their expenditures. The judiciary must seize the opportunity and set the ball rolling on unfinished electoral reforms.