The Paradox of Electoral Bonds in India: How Curiosity Killed the Cat?

Mr. Sumit Arora ✉

In the netting of Indian politics, the introduction of electoral bonds has been a subject of intense debate and scrutiny. Ostensibly designed to cleanse the funding mechanisms of political parties, these instruments have instead cloaked the process in a shroud of opacity. The adage "Curiosity killed the cat," often used to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation, finds a peculiar resonance in the context of electoral bonds. This piece explores the paradoxical nature of electoral bonds in India, where the quest for transparency in political funding has led to an environment where curiosity is both a necessity and a casualty.

 

Representative picture

The Genesis & Paradox

Introduced in 2018, electoral bonds were hailed as a revolutionary step towards ensuring clean money in politics. The government posited that these instruments would enable donations to political parties through formal banking channels, thereby eliminating the influx of black money. This initiative appeared to be a panacea for the long-standing malaise of opaque political funding.

However, the implementation of electoral bonds has unfolded a paradox. The anonymity provided to donors has raised significant concerns about the potential for quid pro quo and undue influence on policy-making. While the bonds are purchased through the banking system, the identity of the donor remains shielded from the public eye. This anonymity contradicts the very essence of transparency and accountability in political financing.

The situation embodies the proverb "Curiosity killed the cat," where the electorate's quest for understanding the sources of political funding is met with a deliberate obfuscation. The citizens' right to know who funds their elected representatives is fundamental to a healthy democracy. Yet, under the guise of promoting transparency, the electoral bond scheme has effectively stifled this curiosity.

 

The Need for Curiosity

In this context, curiosity does not kill the cat; rather, it is the lifeblood of a vibrant democratic society. The electorate's desire to scrutinize the financial underpinnings of political parties is not just a matter of idle curiosity but a critical exercise of democratic rights. The opacity surrounding electoral bonds necessitates a heightened sense of curiosity among citizens, media, and civil society organizations.

 

The Apex Court’s Observation

The Supreme Court of India's observations on electoral bonds have been pivotal in shaping the discourse around this financial instrument introduced for political donations. While the Court has yet to deliver a final verdict on the constitutionality and transparency of electoral bonds, its interim observations and orders have highlighted concerns regarding transparency, anonymity, and the potential for misuse within the electoral bond scheme.

One of the Supreme Court's significant interim observations came in April 2019, when it directed all political parties to provide details of the donations received through electoral bonds to the Election Commission of India (ECI) in a sealed cover. This directive was aimed at ensuring some level of oversight by the ECI, albeit without making the information public. The Court's decision to not stay the electoral bond scheme but to require political parties to disclose donations received through bonds to the ECI was seen as a balanced approach, pending a detailed examination of the scheme's impact on transparency and democracy.

The Supreme Court's concern has been primarily centred around the anonymity provided to donors of electoral bonds, which, while protecting donor privacy, raises questions about the potential for unchecked corporate influence and foreign contributions, which could affect the democratic process. The Court has been cautious, acknowledging the need for transparency in political funding while also considering the arguments for donor anonymity to protect them from potential political victimization.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court's handling of the electoral bond scheme reflects its awareness of the complexities involved in balancing the need for political funding with the principles of transparency and accountability in a democracy. The Court has recognized the arguments made by the petitioners about the risks of creating an opaque funding mechanism that could lead to a lack of transparency in political financing, potentially undermining the integrity of the electoral process.

 

Critique around

Critics argue that the anonymity associated with electoral bonds could pave the way for quid pro quo arrangements, where policy decisions might be influenced by the interests of anonymous donors. The lack of disclosure requirements for political parties receiving these funds further exacerbates the situation, leading to a scenario where the electorate remains in the dark about the financial backers of their elected representatives.

Supporters of electoral bonds argue that this system is a step forward in curbing the use of unaccounted money in elections, providing a secure and legitimate channel for political donations. They contend that the anonymity feature is essential to protect donors from potential backlash and political victimization, thereby encouraging more legitimate funding.

 

Transparency

The essence of democracy is grounded in transparency and accountability. The electorate's right to know the source of political funding is paramount, as it directly impacts governance and policy-making. The anonymity of electoral bonds, while protecting donors, paradoxically undermines the democratic principle of transparency, leaving room for speculation about the influence of unseen forces in the corridors of power.

The debate on electoral bonds reflects the broader struggle between the need for privacy in political donations and the demand for transparency in political financing. As India continues to navigate its path towards a more transparent political funding mechanism, it is imperative to strike a balance that protects the interests of donors, political parties, and most importantly, the electorate.

 

Finale word

While electoral bonds were introduced as a beacon of transparency and accountability, the paradox of anonymity challenges the very foundation of democratic transparency. It is a reminder that the path to reform is fraught with complexities and contradictions. As the largest democracy in the world, India's experiment with electoral bonds is a testament to its ongoing quest for an ideal political funding mechanism that harmonizes the principles of transparency, accountability, and privacy.

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