Responding to queries from the Supreme Court which will rule Friday on an interim plea to stay the electoral bond scheme on funding of political parties, Attorney General K K Venugopal Thursday said “transparency cannot be the mantra” and “my opinion is voters have the right to know about their candidates… why should they know where the money of political parties is coming from”.
In his submissions before the bench of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjeev Khanna, the AG, while addressing a question on the need for transparency in political funding, said “realities of the day” have to be taken into account and “it can’t be applied without appreciating the particular problem”.
Earlier, the AG had pointed to limitations on funding of political parties and said there was still no state funding of elections. He said the reason to protect donors under the electoral bond scheme from disclosing their identity was because donors feared victimisation by political parties to whom they had not contributed.
Interim ruling, but significant
Opacity versus transparency, right to privacy versus right to know, secrecy versus full disclosure, black money versus clean funds. These are the key issues before the Supreme Court as it decides pleas to stay the electoral bond scheme. The government has been underlining the donor’s right to secrecy, but that’s a view not shared by the petitioners and the poll panel who are calling for greater transparency and full disclosure. That’s why the interim ruling today will be significant.
On the contention that the scheme went against the voters right to know, Venugopal said “why should they know where the money of political parties is coming from”. His remark came after Justice Gupta observed that the concern was whether the system promoted opacity and “shouldn’t voters know which party is funded by whom.. that’s an important part of the voters right to know”.
The AG said there was also the right to privacy after the Puttaswamy judgment.
The bench, which is hearing pleas by the CPM and NGO Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) challenging the scheme, questioned the AG who sought to explain the security aspects of the scheme, and maintained that it would curb black money in the long run.
CJI Gogoi asked the AG whether banks would know the identity of the purchaser of the bonds. When a clear answer was not forthcoming, the CJI said “if the identity of the purchaser is not known, it will have wider ramifications. Your entire exercise of doing away with black money is negative”.
The AG later clarified that the identity was known to the bank since KYC fulfilment was mandatory for purchasing the bond.
Justice Khanna said KYC was only proof of identity of the purchaser and not a guarantee of the genuineness of the transaction. The AG said people can buy bonds only with money from their own accounts and, therefore, all money will be accounted for.
Justice Khanna pointed out that shell companies would also be able to make contributions in that manner. At this, the AG said Income Tax authorities can always access information whenever required. He said the new scheme was “not worse off” than the previous regime under which black money flowed into the system. Calling it an experiment by the government to reduce black money, the AG said only time will tell how successful it has been.
The Election Commission, meanwhile, told the bench it had information about how much donation had been received by political parties in the form of bonds. Senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, appearing for the Commission, said this was disclosed by the political parties themselves.
The CJI expressed surprise and said the entire quarrel was that changes in the law introducing the bonds had made information on them protected from disclosure.
Appearing for petitioner ADR, advocate Prashant Bhushan said that according to Election Commission figures, bonds worth Rs 210 crore of the total Rs 221 crore purchased had gone to the BJP.