A Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice of India, D.Y. Chandrachud on November 2 reserved its judgment on petitions challenging the validity of the electoral bonds scheme. The proceedings so far have focused on arguments pertaining to the voters’ right to information vis-a-vis the right to confidentiality of donors. The petitioners have prayed that the matter be heard and disposed of before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

The reasons for the challenge include the anonymity of donors, and lack of a mechanism for the public to know who such donors are, despite the Right to Information Act. Other issues that have been raised are the manner in which bills were tabled in Parliament as `Money Bills’ and their passage without referral to the Rajya Sabha, and amendments made to several laws including the Reserve Bank of India Act, Companies Act, Income Tax Act, Representation of Peoples Act and Foreign Contributions Regulations Act in the Finance Act 2017.

It is clear that the petitioners feel that the Electoral Bonds have an unfair effect in the selection and election of candidates, and the extent to which the political parties that have benefitted from the anonymous bonds favour those who have contributed to the bonds. It may be mentioned here that only the donor, the receiver and banking system (which also means the regulator RBI and its ‘controller i.e., the Union Government) are aware of who has contributed what and to whom. That means that it can be argued that the bonds are virtually a kind of a legally permitted bribe given by “vested interests” to political parties in the expectation that the political parties would support them in unfair ways inside or outside parliament. Given the total cloak of secrecy, the donors could be monopoly groups, criminal syndicates, foreign powers or worse!

The Election Commission itself opposed this anonymity associated with the Electoral Bonds in 2017, before they were introduced. The Reserve Bank of India had also warned the government on the perils of electoral bonds and its effect on the country’s currency just before its announcement on Budget 2017. However, the Finance Ministry overlooked it stating the apex bank had not “understood the proposed mechanism”. In fact, ever since the government proposed the introduction of these bonds, there has been a lot of opposition, not only from conscientious dutiful officials in the government and RBI but from a wide spectrum of people and organisations across the length and breadth of the country. It is a sad comment on the nature of parliamentary democracy itself that the Government of the day steamrolled the proposal and made it “legal”’. But this is an excellent example of something being “legal’ but totally immoral!

Legal eagles will be watching the decisions closely and much will be written and said and read and heard about the outcome of the hearings and the final judgement. Indeed, the petitioners have noted inter alia that “…private corporate interests taking precedence over the needs and rights of the people of the State in policy considerations”. In other words, the main question that would arise is whether in such a situation elections that are conducted are truly free and fair, or are they something else?

While noting with alarm all the points above, the present commentary considers that it is an opportune moment to actually ask questions on the various notions mentioned above. The Westminster System of having a bicameral legislature and the supreme power resting in the hands of the Cabinet, and finally in the person of the Prime Minister, with a constitutional monarch replaced by a President, is a true copy of the British system of government. The Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary as the three arms of the State are supposed to have inbuilt features of checks and balances. The life experience of the last 75 years has shown that this system has completely marginalised the Indian people from the affairs of the state and governance. From the beginning, political power has rested in the hands of political representatives of elites both at the Centre and at the State levels, with various political parties switching sides from the Treasury to the Opposition benches in periodic elections.

The issue of electoral bonds, though very significant, is only one of several maladies that plague our political process. By introducing this system, the biggest industrial houses and the billionaires have found a way to directly decide who gets elected, and what government is formed, and which law will be passed. However, even in the past, political parties were always funded by the super-rich, the monopoly houses, the rich of various regions. Electoral bonds only streamline the process, making it easier and “legal””.

If every citizen has the right to elect and get elected, as the case ought to be in an egalitarian democracy, whether she is a princess or a pauper, then the system should enable this in practice. Instead, the system today only enhances the powers of the big established political parties while making it very difficult for smaller parties and public-minded individuals to contribute to strengthening the polity in favour of the people. In an equitable political process, the wealth of an individual should not be a barrier to contest in an election. In such a case, the state must finance the elections and all candidates who have qualified to contest.

The issue of electoral bonds also underlines the fact that people have no power to control the political parties which give out “tickets” to candidates to contest from various constituencies. Instead, it ought to be the people of every constituency who should be able to decide on who may be allowed to contest from their constituency. Moreover, once elected, candidates no longer have to give account to or care two hoots about the people who actually elected them. This is a gross impropriety which needs to be corrected. Elected representatives must be made accountable to their respective electorates. They should periodically render account of their activities in parliament and outside, which advance the interests of the electorate, their need for jobs, education, health facilities, infrastructure, availability of necessities at affordable prices and much more. The electorate should have the right to recall those who do not perform in their interests.

There are many more aspects of the electoral and political process that thinking individuals, working men and women, students, and youth, should concern themselves with. We must all participate in deciding how to change the present system in a way that actually works for us, and not for the moneybags, monopolies and the super-rich. The opportunity presented by the hearing of the electoral bonds case is a welcome one, it is also an opportunity to take the debate further to ask what kind of a democracy India has, and what kind of a democracy should it have. Let us look forward to the start of a widespread discussion on these questions which have a bearing on the future of our country.

Source of image: https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/supreme-court-to-hear-challenge-against-electoral-bonds-scheme-on-october-31-239738

by BA and Venkatesh Sundaram

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