The JMM example

By disclosing source of funds received through electoral bonds, the party has set a welcome precedent. Others must follow suit.

The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) deserves praise for disclosing the name of the donor who contributed to the party through the electoral bond scheme. Announced in the 2017 Budget, these bonds, sold in multiples of Rs 1,000, Rs 10,000, Rs 1 lakh, Rs 10 lakh, and Rs 1 crore, are interest-free bearer instruments used to donate money to political parties. The instrument does not carry any information about the payee and this anonymity provision has attracted controversy. In the first week of this month, the Supreme Court refused to stay the scheme but flagged an important issue. Hearing a plea by the Association of Democratic Rights, a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice S A Bobde asked the government if it has any control on the end-use of these bonds, and talked about the possibility of the money being used for violent activities. Transparent political conduct will go a long way in addressing such concerns. The JMM’s disclosure sets a welcome precedent in this respect.

Political funding is a contentious issue in India. Before 2017, a large chunk of donations received in cash remained unaccounted for. And, contributions through the banking system carried the possibility of the donor being harassed if the non-receiving party was returned to office. The electoral bond scheme was envisaged as a solution to this predicament. Introducing the scheme in his Budget speech of 2017, the then Finance Ministry Arun Jaitley talked of transparency in political funding, without which “free and fair elections are not possible”. But questions were raised on precisely this ground when the fine print of the scheme was revealed. Through an amendment to the Finance Act 2017, the Centre exempted political parties from disclosing donations received through electoral bonds. Before the introduction of the bonds, parties had to disclose details of all donors who donated more than Rs 20,000. The secrecy clause, transparency activists allege, goes against the citizens’ right to know and makes political parties even more unaccountable. In 2017, the Election Commission had described this clause as a retrograde step and asked the government to annul it. The Reserve Bank of India too had expressed concerns about the scheme.

Despite a 2013 ruling by the Central Information Commissioner about political parties falling under the RTI Act, most parties have resisted being classified as public authorities under the transparency law. The JMM’s assertion, “we have nothing to hide,” while disclosing that the party received Rs 1 crore from Hindalco Industries Ltd through an electoral bond, therefore, frames an important moment in the country’s politics. Its significance will be enhanced manifold if other parties follow suit.

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