420: My name is Bond, Electoral Bond!

Sanjay Jha
National Spokesperson, Indian National Congress party

Everywhere I go, I am subjected to the same grumpy lamentation: why do good people not join Indian politics? I appear visibly distraught at the implied insinuation that I am a ‘bad’ guy, probably hand-in-glove with seedy characters, fixing deals, engineering trouble for vote-bank consolidation or indulging in something deleterious to society to enrich my private treasury.

Then I am reassured that some of us are innocuous oddballs in our political ecosystem and that ultimately our collective impact is negligible, our good intentions notwithstanding. Therefore, the system stinks, as it has for years, with change unlikely in the near term. I admit to acquiescing in the mood of despondency. 

The introduction by the former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley of a dubious bond for campaign finance has only aggravated the blue devils. 

The newly introduced financial instrument, called Electoral Bonds, by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance must rank as the most egregious attempt at  sleight of hand, a treachery of Himalayan scale with the most trusting, credulous 130 crore people of India. 

The defining characteristic of this ingenious contraption is that the donor’s details will remain anonymous by law. There are other fault-lines, too, such as the removal of the 7.5% of the net profit as maximum limits, foreign contribution made permissible and no need to declare the name of the political party in the annual reports of the company’s balance sheet.

Electoral Bond is the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma and served with calculated chicanery. It is a fraud. Period. 

So far, 95% of the funds raised through this novel breakthrough have gone to just one political party, the BJP. Surprised? Even the Reserve Bank of India recommended against the inherent sandbagging in the scheme. But BJP rode roughshod over all the objections. It has an absolute majority in Parliament, you see. 

And the fact is that unless campaign financing is made 100% transparent with full public disclosures, Indian politics will command a filthy stench. Political funding is the principal factor behind India’s ugly politics of quid pro quo deals, crony capitalism and rent-seeking, gangsters and crooked businessmen becoming elected representatives, and corruption &  government malfeasance. 

And with electoral bonds we have taken opaqueness to a new elevated rubric. It is shambolic, to say the least. It is the elephant in the room that sporadically surfaces in the public domain and following a few heated TV debates where everyone appears self-righteous, conveniently disappears into the crevices. 

There is an expenditure limit of Rs 70 lakh per candidate to contest a Lok Sabha seat. I believe it is rarely adhered to. Most politicians brazenly flout it as the amount is considered a pittance in a world where free booze, cash distribution, monetary inducements, buying airtime, billboard promotions, posters, organizing umpteen rallies, etc. are prominent heads of expense.

The Election Commission appears nonchalant to the rampant abuse of law, intermittently waking up to issue a show cause notice for a poll violation. Frankly, no one cares. At best, the official cap is a notional one. 

The outrageous contravention of the same is best exhibited in the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde’s public declaration that he spent Rs 8 crore in his parliamentary constituency. Most political parties therefore choose candidates who are able to self-fund their election campaigns, thus the quality of candidates is invariably low as tickets are often given to certified criminals, opportunistic carpetbaggers and shady characters with access to sleaze monies. 

Since most of the transactions are in cash, India runs a parallel economy that does not have an audit trail. Moreover, the Election Commission does not have the wherewithal for forensic investigation of such financial impropriety. 

This has continued for decades. And no one seems to have the intent to change it. It is unconscionable and leaves me nonplussed. That is the reason why politicians happily defect from one party to the other with flamboyant insouciance. Ideology? What the hell is that? 

Unlike individuals, political parties have no limit for their expenditures. The sky is not the limit either. After the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it was estimated that approximately a humongous Rs 60,000 crore was spent which exceeds monies spent in the US presidential elections of 2016. 

For a country with 22% living below the poverty line and one where there was such an animated acrimonious debate on how funding of the NYAY (Minimum Income Guarantee) scheme for the poor will come from, the radio silence on this apparent recondite source of funds is luminous hypocrisy. 

Indian democracy is being devastated and we are all willing participants in its bonfire. Industrializing corruption has now led to its formal institutionalization; electoral bonds is a manifestation of India becoming the poster-boy of an emerging market banana republic wearing ‘We Are Corrupt’ on the tee-shirt with a winking smiley. 

Even India Inc that lavishes platitudes on corporate governance is an accessory in this crime; it actually prefers anonymity for fear of being harassed as political retribution if the rival triumphs. Some of that apprehension is justified given the current political climate of fear and intimidation, but it is tragic that several industry bodies succumb meekly to the powers-that-be instead of creating a public furore over it. 

No one wants to bell the cat. They should try. The agitating Jawaharlal Nehru University students can serve as an inspiration. But they won’t as Big Business has usually courted politicians for favours when it comes to accessing public assets like land, water, spectrum, coal, forests, mines etc. 

The confidentiality in electoral bonds suits their business strategy as they can grease the other palms should there be a power transfer, while perpetuating their mercenary asphyxiation of the system for shareholder value. Corporate donors thus become the stationary bandits whose self-aggrandizement gets a protective bodyguard in electoral bonds. 

Everyone is happy.  But you, my dear ladies and gentlemen, have just got taken for a jolly big ride. Ultimately, civil society is the custodian of a country’s democracy that keeps the checks and balances on perfidious governments. It is time to read the cheques. 

Disclaimer: The author is the National Spokesperson, Indian National Congress party. Views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author and do not reflect the views of Yahoo.