Don’t Legitimise Opaque Poll Funds
Electoral bonds scrap transparency as norm
It is welcome that the government has taken up the important subject of reforming political funding. But the proposal set out in the Budget, to let donors buy so-called electoral bonds that can be redeemed only in the account of a political party from banks and donate them to the party of their choice, serves little purpose. Instead of advancing transparency, the bond gives legitimacy to opaque contributions to political parties, trashing the present norm that parties must maintain a list of all donors who contribute any sum larger than 20,000. This denies citizens the right to know who funds parties.
The identity of bond buyers and parties redeeming them will be known to the banks issuing them, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and — presumably — the ruling government of the day. This leaves the mechanism open to abuse by incumbent parties, and wreck the market for these bonds. In a democracy, the fundamental point of campaign finance reform is to let every voter know the identities of big political funders, and their interest in doing so. Poll bonds do the exact opposite. Nor will lowering the ceiling on anonymous cash donations from 20,000 to 2,000 deter donors or parties from giving or accepting unnamed cash donations: the number of donors will simply go up 10 times. In any case, parties show only a fraction of their actual spending in the accounts they file. Identifying the source of income for this sliver of their spending is neither here nor there. The starting point of the reform we need is to get a handle on realistic spending by any party.
Things might work better if the Election Commission scrapped its impractical spending limit and, instead, made it compulsory for each party and candidate to reveal spending at each level, starting from the polling booth. These numbers should be open to challenge by rivals, the media and watchdog bodies. The EC can then finalise actual spending, and ask parties to reveal from whom all they received this money. This might still leave some political funding unaccounted, but would still mark a huge improvement over the current state of affairs. At any rate, policy should not valorise opaque political funding.