Ex-Union secretary EAS Sarma flags poll bond ‘foul play’
Former Union economic affairs secretary E.A.S. Sarma has asked the Election Commission of India to prevent the fresh sale of electoral bonds, as allowed under an amendment notified by the Centre on Monday that he described as “ill-timed, improper” and as a bid by the ruling party to take “undue advantage”.
The amendment grants an additional 15 days a year for bonds to be sold at specified State Bank of India branches. The finance ministry has announced that these branches would sell the bonds from November 9 to 15. Till now, the bonds could be sold only on 10 specified days each in January, April, July and October barring years of Lok Sabha polls.
The amendment to the Electoral Bonds Scheme — which allows anonymous donations to political parties — comes at a time Assembly elections have been declared in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.
Campaigning in Himachal ends on November 10, so the fresh sale of bonds is unlikely to have much impact in the state.
A 2017 plea against the scheme by the CPM and the NGOs Common Cause and the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) is due for hearing in the Supreme Court next month.
The CPM and the ADR have opposed the latest push. Former chief election commissioners (CECs) T.S. Krishna Murthy and O.P. Rawat too have spoken out against the scheme and the amendment.
The poll panel is yet to respond to queries from TheTelegraph on the amendment.
The Assembly polls are being conducted by a two-member Election Commission, with one vacancy.
In an open letter to the commission on Tuesday, Sarma said: “In the instant case, I feel that the notification dated 7-11-2022 issued by the ministry of finance is ill-timed, improper, amounting to the ruling political party openly flouting the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), ignoring the ongoing proceedings before the apex court and enlarging the window for it to continue to receive donations in a highly non-transparent manner, disturbing the level playing ground between itself and the other political parties.
“I feel that it is a fit case for the commission to issue a showcause notice to the government immediately, before it becomes a fait accompli, to revoke the notification forthwith, failing which the scheduled elections will be deferred, as otherwise, the commission would be allowing the ruling political party to take undue advantage of the political executive’s statutory authority, to enrich itself to the disadvantage of the other political parties.”
Although the MCC only prohibits the announcement of “financial grants” by the government that is facing the election, Sarma told this newspaper: “Any action by the government that is likely to influence an election during the MCC should be questioned.”
An analysis by the ADR, published in June, says: “The BJP has redeemed Rs 4.23thousand crores worth EBs (electoral bonds) from 2017-18to 2020-21, which is 65 per cent of the total amount during these years. This is nearly 6times that of second-placed Indian National Congress, which has redeemed Rs 716crore till 2020-21.”
The Electoral Bond Scheme, notified in 2018, allows Indian citizens to buy the bonds for a period of 10 days each in January, April, July and October, as specified by the central government.
The Centre can specify an additional period of 30 days in the year of a general election. These bonds do not name the buyer and can be encashed by political parties that won at least one per cent of the vote share in the latest Assembly or Lok Sabha polls.
Monday’s amendment says: “An additional period of fifteen days shall be specified by the central government in the year of general elections to the legislative assembly of states and Union territories with legislature.”
“The timing shows that it has been done to influence (the) Gujarat campaign only, and that too (while) giving such influencing power in the hands of donors,” former CEC Rawat told this newspaper.
Jagdeep Chhokar, founder of poll watchdog ADR, said: “This is unsurprisingly another step towards opening the floodgates for unaccounted and unaccountable money to flow into the political system. The question of transparency no longer exists. It is worth noting that the MCC is in force in two states. The authorities who are supposed to take note have stopped saying anything.”
Former CEC Krishna Murthy told this newspaper: “I don’t approve of electoral bonds for funding elections. We should have public funding of elections by constituting a National Elections Fund, contributions to which will have 100 per cent tax exemption so that the nexus between donors and political parties is totally snapped.”