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The Judiciary, Political Financing and Electoral Transparency

By Venkatasubramanian Srinivasan

The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling of 11 March 2024 that ordered the State Bank of India (SBI) to submit details of electoral bonds by 12 March 2024 evening, a directive which was promptly complied with by the SBI, represents a significant moment in the ongoing discourse around electoral financing in India. This decision arrives at a crucial juncture, with the country on the cusp of its parliamentary elections, and it has the potential to cast a long shadow over the electoral process and the transparency mechanisms governing political funding.

Electoral bonds, since their introduction in 2018, have been a subject of intense debate. Proponents argue that they are a step towards ensuring cleaner donations to political parties, as they are banked instruments that can be traced to the buyer. Critics, however, see them as a vehicle for anonymous donations that could lead to an influx of unaccounted money into the political system, potentially skewing the playing field in favour of those with deep pockets.

The Supreme Court’s intervention, demanding transparency in the electoral bonds scheme by requiring the disclosure of donation details held by the SBI, is seen as a move towards greater accountability in political financing. This action suggests a judicial acknowledgment of the concerns surrounding the potential for misuse of electoral bonds in favour of opaque political contributions.

The impact of this ruling on the upcoming parliamentary elections could be multifaceted:

  1. Increased Transparency: The immediate effect is a potential increase in transparency in political funding. By making the details of electoral bond donations public, the electorate will have a clearer understanding of the financial backers of political parties. This could lead to greater public scrutiny of the influence of big money in politics.
  1. Shift in Political Strategy: Political parties might have to rethink their funding strategies. With the details of electoral bonds made public, parties might find themselves under increased pressure to diversify their funding sources, perhaps leaning more towards smaller contributions from a wider base, thereby democratizing political funding.
  1. Public Trust: This move could either bolster or diminish public trust in the electoral process. On one hand, increased transparency could reassure the public about the fairness of the electoral process. On the other hand, the revelations about the scale of donations and their sources could lead to cynicism about the influence of wealth in politics.
  1. Legal and Political Ramifications: The ruling sets a precedent for the legal oversight of electoral financing and could lead to further legal challenges and demands for reform in the system of political donations. Politically, it might embolden those calling for more stringent reforms in electoral financing laws.
  1. Market Reactions: The decision might also have an immediate impact on the market, especially concerning entities heavily invested in bond markets. The transparency could affect the reputations and stock prices of companies revealed to be major donors to particular parties.

In summary, the Supreme Court’s ruling is a watershed moment for electoral transparency in India. It signifies a judicial push for accountability in political donations, which could lead to significant shifts in the landscape of political funding, especially in the context of the forthcoming elections. While the full impact of this decision will unfold in the weeks and months to come, it undeniably marks a critical step towards greater transparency and perhaps a more level playing field in Indian politics.

[The author is a retired international civil servant of the United Nations, presently Founder & Principal Consultant, India i.e., Bharat Knowledge Exchange, and Founder & CEO, Quill & Juris]

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