What is common to Silvio Berlusconi the former Prime Minister of Italy, Hugo Chavez the former President of Venezuela and Dilma Roussef, the former President of Brazil? All of these leaders were elected to power on an anticorruption platform but ended up becoming significantly more corrupt than the previous leaders they overthrew.
When a country is plagued with corruption, and voters are looking to effect change through the ballot box, research has shown that they often bet on a strong leader who claims to be honest. World over, autocrats have consolidated power by exploiting the voter’s intolerance of venal politicians. However, power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s not long before the façade eventually comes off. In India, that façade came off on 22 March 2017, when the government introduced the electoral bond scheme, which is now being described by many as the most sophisticated form of legalised corruption in the world.
While countries like the United States and United Kingdom accept corporate donations, these donations are never anonymous. This legal innovation to fuel corruption is the brainchild of late former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. All of us are familiar with the idea of corruption, which the Oxford dictionary defines as “a dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery.” But, with stricter vigilance, stronger provisions for punishment and the emergence of anti–corruption activists, perpetrators and agents of corruption have found novel and more effective ways to pursue nefarious activities- shield themselves through institutional and legislative action.
This type of ‘legalised corruption’ receives far less attention, though it is equally insidious and against the spirit of a constitutional democracy. For those not familiar with electoral bonds, they are a type of bearer bond that enable companies to fund political parties without revealing their identity. These bonds are meant to be completely anonymous, untraceable, and interest-free. Companies also have no obligation to reveal which parties they have donated to. The State Bank of India has been entrusted with offering these bonds and once the bond is issued to a political party, it has to be cashed within 15 days.
These bonds can also only be purchased in the months of January, April, July and October for 10 days. The rationale for ensuring limited opening of bonds for sale is to curb money laundering. To make such a move possible, the government has gone to great lengths by amending several legislations including the Reserve Bank of India Act 1934, Representation of Peoples Act 1951, Income Tax Act 1961 and Companies Act. It would eventually come into law with the passage of the Finance Bill, 2017. In this process, several key safeguards for accountability were either diluted or removed in these legislations.
Over the last two years, several experts including this author have already pointed out umpteen reasons to prove that the electoral bond scheme is problematic. In short, the lack of transparency could lead to entities routing ill-gotten monies through shell companies, without having to reveal the identity of the donor. And hence, while it was always evident that the electoral bond scheme would not further transparency, like the government claims it would.
But the full extent of the government’s intention has only been revealed in the last week, with the government bypassing one rule too many to further its own interests. If one still had even the belief that the BJP government’s intentions are honest and that this government espoused Prime Minister Modi’s philosophy of “naa khaaonga, naa khaane doonga” (I will not be corrupt or allow for corruption on my watch”), those doubts can be firmly put to rest.
Documents procured through the Right to Information Act have revealed that the Prime Minister’s Office was not just a silent spectator but was complicit in perpetrating this scam. The evidence pointing toward the involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office is damning. The Prime Minister’s Office lobbied for special windows for the issue of the bonds apart from the 10-day window in the first half of 2018, when five state elections were held. In this period, 94.5 per cent of the bonds issue went to the BJP.
The involvement does not stop here. With the Karnataka elections throwing up a hung assembly, the government reportedly coerced banks to accept electoral bonds that had already expired. When the State Bank of India initially refused, the Finance Ministry pressurised the bank further, relying on obfuscation as a negotiation strategy. The timing of the interventions raises an important question. Is it possible that funds raised from electoral bonds might have been used to horse-trade MLAs in states like Karnataka?
Almost all institutions or experts that have been consulted by the government have vociferously rejected the idea of the electoral bonds. As the recent documents have further revealed, despite stringent opposition from the Reserve Bank of India and the Election Commission, the government went ahead with the move. India has always prided itself on the strength of its independent institutions. Institutions like the Election Commission, Reserve Bank of India, Supreme Court etc. have been the bedrock of the great Indian democratic experiment. But with excessive governmental interference, their autonomy now stands broken. To sustain a vibrant democracy, India needs real campaign finance reforms.
However, reforms like state funding of elections or amendment of counterproductive election expenditure laws have only been explored superficially. Over the years, academics and practitioners like Yogendra Yadav, Jagdeep Chokhar, E Sreedharan, Rajeev Gowda, Milan Vaishnav, Devesh Kapur, SY Qureshi etc. have also proposed several models for more sustainable and accountable electoral financing but none of these ideas have caught the interest of the government or the Election Commission.
The BJP’s well-oiled election machinery is heavily dependent on cash for election campaigning. It outspends its rivals like the Congress by a large margin. For smaller parties like the Aam Aadmi Party, which I belong to, the BJP might well outspend us by a factor of thousand. Will the government be willing to junk an idea that has proved so lucrative in filling its coffers in favour of accountability? It seems unlikely. As Raghuram Rajan argues, “the crooked politician needs the businessman to provide the funds that allow him to supply patronage to the poor and fight elections.
The corrupt businessman needs the crooked politician to get public resources and contracts cheaply. And the politician needs the votes of the poor and the underprivileged. Every constituency is tied to the other in a cycle of dependence, which ensures that the status quo prevails.”
(The writer is a former IPS office, a member of the 15th Lok Sabha and a member of the Aam Aadmi Party)