Thus spake Arun Jaitley, Honourable Finance Minister of India on January 2, 2018. Almost as if he were reassuring himself, that unlike the preceding year when his boss, the Honourable Prime Minister, had turned a televised New Year's Eve address to his pyaaren deshwaasiyon into a mini-budget speech complete with sector allocations and stolen his thunder, he was a man fully in control this year. No more unceremonious usurping of his role on live television, thank you very much.
And yet, in a dark repetition of the grand annual BJP game of "let's pull the wool over the nation's eyes", Mr. Jaitley has yet again initiated, on national television, the follow-up to the demonetisation debacle, namely the electoral bond best described as the 'Dhoka Bond'. Like its infamous fellow-traveller, demonetisation, which made three hollow promises (of removing black money, reducing terrorism and ending fake currency in circulation), this new electoral gimmick also offers lofty assurances. Unlike demonetisation, this scam does not need 50 days to gauge its efficacy - the 'Dhoka Bond' falls flat on every parameter on day one itself.
For the uninitiated - the electoral bond is a bearer instrument in the nature of a Promissory Note and an interest-free banking instrument. A citizen of India or a body incorporated in India will be eligible to purchase the bond from specified branches of the State Bank of India for any value in multiples of Rs 1,000, 10,000, one lakh, ten lakhs or even one crore. The bonds will not carry the name of the payee and will be valid only for 15 days during which they can be used to make a donation only to those registered political parties who have secured not less than 1 per cent of the votes polled in the most recent general or state election. The bonds can be encashed by an eligible political party only through a designated bank account with an authorised bank.
The most basic and universally accepted principle of political funding is transparency. Adequate disclosure - of donor names, amounts, political beneficiaries - is absolutely essential in a functioning democracy. The voter has every right to know - nay, the voter must know! - who is funding which party and by how much. Ah, but then people would join the dots and see the picture emerge - the links between policy decisions and certain corporates who may have enriched political coffers? In Mr Jaitley's skewed vision of the world, transparency means information available to the central government alone!
With the new 'Dhoka Bond' the voting public will not know who has bought an electoral bond. The beneficiary political party will ostensibly not know the donor's identity and hence will only be required to tell the Election Commission that it received x amount by way of electoral bonds but will not need to disclose names. The donor company on its balance sheet will simply declare it has bought a bond to the tune of x but will not declare the name of the bond's recipient. Does that sound transparent, Mr Jaitley?
The Companies Act, 2013, required that corporates could donate up to a maximum of 7.5 per cent of their average net profit in the past three financial years to political parties and were required to disclose the names of the beneficiaries in their profit and loss statements. Under Mr Jaitley's stewardship, the government on March 23, 2017 moved an unprecedented 40 amendments to the Finance Bill, 2017, tagging along non-tax bills in the legislation to make them Money Bills. These included an amendment to the Companies Act, 2013, that proposes removing the cap that barred companies from donating more than 7.5 per cent of their average net profit to a political party. Also, the companies no longer need to disclose the name of the party to which the donation is made. The BJP-majority Lok Sabha passed the bill the very next day: the more balanced Rajya Sabha watched helplessly as it has no jurisdiction over a money bill.
A written submission by Nikhil Kumar, Director, Election Commission of India dated May 18, 2017 to the Parliamentary Committee on Law and Personnel vide memo No.287/PSC/02/Coord-2017 states clearly that the "... amendment in section 29C of the R.P. Act 1951 making it no longer necessary to report details of donations received through electoral bonds is a retrograde step as transparency of political funding would be compromised as a result of this change." Depositions by senior EC officials before the aforementioned committee on May 19, 2017 reiterate this view with a certain Director General of the EC even stating on record that the "transparency aspect is a little suspect"! Officialdom's understatement, Mr Jaitley, but do these statements cover you in clouds of glory?
The Orwellian script in the months to come is predictable. Corporate funding for the BJP will continue unabated. For everyone else - each time a company goes to a bank and buys a bond for say, 1 crore, and fills a KYC disclosure form, the details will be passed onto the RBI. The central government, the Finance Ministry and its allied arms such as the CBDT will have immediate access to this information. A delicate phone call will be made to the company to ensure the bond comes only the BJP's way, or else... the forces of the CBDT, the CBI and all available heavy artillery will be unleashed on the corporate or individual.
Your newest gimmick, Mr Finance Minister, is truly transparent. In its malign objective. The goal it seeks is distinct even without a screening glass - Choke Opposition Funding. And move one step closer to the ultimate goal of a Vipaksh-Mukt Bharat. But be warned Mr Jaitley... the nation is analysing the 'Dhoka Bond'... and this time, unlike last November, it won't be easily conned.
(Mahua Moitra is a member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly and General Secretary of the West Bengal Trinamool Congress.)
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