India’s Supreme Court scraps electoral bonds, calls them ‘unconstitutional’

India’s Supreme Court has scrapped a seven-year-old election funding system, called “electoral bonds”, that allows individuals and companies to donate money to political parties anonymously and without any limits.

Coming nearly two months before the general election, Thursday’s decision is seen as a setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been the largest beneficiary of the system it introduced in 2017.

The secretive election funding system was challenged by the opposition parties and a civil society group on the grounds that it hindered the public’s right to know who had given money to political parties.

A five-judge top court bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud on Thursday said the system is “unconstitutional” and directed the state-run State Bank of India (SBI) to not issue any more of these bonds, to furnish identity details of those who bought them, and to provide information about bonds redeemed by each political party.

“Political contributions give a seat at the table to the contributor … this access also translates into influence over policy-making,” Chandrachud said.

How did electoral bonds work?
Under the system, a person or company can buy these bonds from SBI in denominations ranging from 1,000 rupees ($12) to 10 million rupees ($120,000) and donate them to a political party of their choice.

The bonds – first sold in early 2018 – are then delivered to the party which can exchange them for cash. The bonds which are exempt from tax, do not carry the name of the donor.

Since their introduction, electoral bonds had become a key method of political funding. While the donors are technically anonymous, critics fear the government could access data through the state-owned SBI.

 

Cash donations are still allowed, but carry no tax exemption.

Because of the close nexus between money and politics, it is possible that financial contributions “would lead to quid pro quo arrangements”, the court said as it reinstated corporate donation limits, saying that treating companies and individuals alike for this was “manifestly arbitrary”.

“The ability of a company to influence the electoral process through political contributions is much higher when compared to that of an individual … contributions made by companies are purely business transactions made with the intent of securing benefits in return,” said the top court’s order.

<<Aljazeera>>