Ban on India’s electoral bonds: How will it affect 2024 election?

While transparency advocates and opposition leaders say ban is a big win for democracy, Modi’s BJP dominates other political funding and remains confident ahead of national elections.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, greets the audience as he arrives with Assam Chief Minister Himanta Bishwa Sarma to address a public rally in Guwahati, India
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, centre, arrives with Assam Chief Minister Himanta Bishwa Sarma, right, to address a public rally in Guwahati, India, on Sunday, February 4, 2024, ahead of national elections from March, 2024 [Anupam Nath/AP Photo]

New Delhi, India — The Indian Supreme Court verdict on Thursday scrapping an opaque, election funding system has set off powerful tremors in the country’s politics, with transparency advocates arguing that it could expose those involved in a controversial form of political financing ahead of national elections.

Opposition leaders say the judgement represents a setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, whose government introduced the electoral bonds scheme seven years ago and which battled long and hard in the top court to defend the funding mechanism.

But the BJP itself has insisted that the court order will not affect its chances in the coming elections, expected between March and May, in which Modi is aiming to secure a third straight term in office.

Electoral bonds, introduced by the BJP in 2017, allowed individuals and companies to donate money to political parties anonymously and without any limits. A five-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, observed that the “political contributions give a seat at the table to the contributor” and that “this access also translates into influence over policymaking”.

The Supreme Court described the scheme as “unconstitutional”. It also directed the state-run State Bank of India (SBI) to halt issuing the bonds, furnish identity details of those who bought them, and provide information about bonds redeemed by each political party. The information will be made public on the website of the Election Commission of India. The SBI is the only organisation authorised to issue the bonds under the scheme.

The release of that information, because of the court order, could give nearly one billion Indian voters their first look at the donors who secretly shelled out billions of dollars to political parties since 2017, and open up scrutiny of the potential benefits they secured in return.

“This judgement essentially upheld the need for transparency in the funding of political parties and reinforced that people’s right to know in a democracy overrides any anonymity,” Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convener of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, told Al Jazeera.

“Political funding is the fountainhead of corruption in India and [electoral bonds] funnelled unlimited flow of ‘black money’ to political parties anonymously.”

‘Slap in the face for the BJP’

In all, the SBI has sold electoral bonds worth $20.3bn, including the latest tranche in January this year. The BJP received nearly 55 percent of these total donations.

“The ruling party has received huge amounts of money which it used in [the last national election in 2019]. It has been a travesty of the parliamentary democracy that has been corporatized in India by anonymous donations,” said Brinda Karat, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), speaking to Al Jazeera.

The left-wing party, currently in power in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was among petitioners before the Supreme Court who had demanded that electoral bonds be declared illegal. It was also the only major party to formally decide that it would not accept any donations through these bonds.

“The judgement has called out this government’s legalisation of political corruption. The BJP will be now accountable to people for money it has taken from corporates and policies it has formed for the corporates in quid pro quo,” Karat said.

Pramod Tiwari, a Congress party MP and the deputy leader of the opposition in the upper house of India’s parliament, described the court verdict as a milestone moment for the country.

“The judges have laid bare the violations of the Indian constitution by the BJP, who employed legislative powers with wrong intentions,” Tiwari said, “to facilitate black money into political funding.

“This is a slap on the face of the BJP,” he told Al Jazeera. Tiwari said the judgement would dent the prospects of the Hindu majoritarian party in the upcoming national vote. “The government has been caught in the act of robbery and pumping money in the shield of legislative powers.”

‘People decide’

But the BJP on Thursday suggested that it was not too concerned by the court order.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, a BJP leader and MP, took a swipe at opposition claims that electoral bonds were responsible for giving the party a dramatic edge over its rivals.

“As for a level playing field, the question is whether you are in the field or outside it. People decide whether you are in the field,” he told reporters.

Critics of the opposition have also pointed out that barring the CPI (M), other political parties also took donations through the electoral bonds scheme. The Congress, for instance, received 9 percent of all secret funding funnelled to political parties under the scheme – though that is a sixth of what the BJP secured.

And while the scrapping of the electoral bonds scheme might eliminate one form of controversial funding, political parties still have other avenues to receive big dollars.

Among them is direct funding from corporations, which political parties are required to declare to the Election Commission of India. And there, the BJP’s dominance over other parties is even greater than it has been with electoral bonds. In the 2022-23 financial year, the BJP received nearly 90 percent of all corporate donations – not including electoral bonds – according to research by the Association of Democratic Reforms, a nonprofit focused on electoral transparency.

In all, political parties spent $8.7bn on India’s last national election in 2019, according to the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies, and analysts expect 2024 to eclipse that figure comfortably.

‘Celebrations’ and ‘awkwardness’

For activists who have been fighting the electoral bonds scheme, Thursday’s order was a moment to celebrate.

Commodore Lokesh Batra, a 77-year-old retired naval officer and transparency campaigner, who filed more than 80 requests under India’s Right to Information Act to procure some details of the scheme, spent the day fielding congratulatory calls.

“Electoral bonds were creating an unequal field and it was a non-transparent form of political funding,” he told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “Corporate doesn’t give money unless you have a quid pro quo. In this case, any foreign company could create a subsidiary in India and donate; our democracy [was vulnerable to] be influenced by countries abroad.”

The timing of the judgement at least prevents the parties from accepting bonds in another tranche before the national election, Batra added. “The political parties need to become more transparent about funding and uphold internal democracy.”

Venkatesh Nayak, the director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said his organisation’s research found that after the introduction of electoral bonds, opaque donations became more and more prevalent. Now, he said, institutions like India’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), and the Election Commission of India (ECI) “need to stand up to the occasion”.

Both the RBI and the ECI had initially expressed reservations about the electoral bonds scheme but had then, in effect, accepted it.

“The RBI and ECI would be embarrassed,” SY Quraishi, former chief election commissioner of India, told Al Jazeera, on the about-turns these institutions took when they “came out in the Supreme Court with language similar to the government”.

“The election commission must be feeling very awkward today,” Quraishi said.

Source: Al Jazeera