The BJP Government talks about undertaking corruption and presents transparency by the means of new agendas.
The pervasiveness of money power and corruption in the political and governance process, as the attempts by the BJP to buy MLAs in the aftermath of the Karnataka Assembly election confirmed, is intense. The Government talks big on taking on graft but its actions betray a very different agenda. The Electoral Bonds Scheme is a prime example of its hypocrisy.
The touted motive
The Electoral Bonds Scheme, which was introduced on January 2, 2018 is a perfect example of the duplicitous nature of the Government. In a Press note titled “Why Electoral Bonds are Necessary?” the Finance Minister of India, Arun Jaitley, said “as against a total non-transparency in the present system of cash donations where the donor, the done, the quantum of donations and the nature of expenditure are all undisclosed, some element of transparency would be introduced in as much as all donors declare in their accounts the amount of bonds that they have purchased and all parties declare the quantum of bonds that they have received”. Therefore, the Press note seems to give us the impression that while introducing absolute transparency in the political funding process is difficult, the BJP wishes to introduce some amount of transparency to the funding process, which is why the Scheme has been introduced. In reality, however, if one examines the amendments made to the other laws in India, pursuant to the introduction of the Scheme, a truer and much more somber picture begins to appear.
How the Scheme works
The Scheme permits any person who is a citizen of India or is an entity incorporated/established in India to purchase an electoral bond in favour of certain political party within a period of 10 days during the time frames specified by the government. This electoral bond, which has been purchased, may then be encashed by political parties by depositing the bonds within in the political party’s designated bank account. In this regard, in order to appreciate how this Scheme actually encourages a lack of transparency it is important to examine the manner in which funding by way of electoral bonds is to be disclosed by political parties compared to other sources of funding.
In this regard, an examination of the Representation of People Act, 1951 (RP Act) and the Income Tax Act, 1961 (I-T Act) is illuminating. The RP Act, inter alia, deals with the conduct of political parties including the funding of political parties. Section 29C of the RP Act requires political parties to prepare a report of all contributions received by a political party in excess of Rs 20,000 from a person or a company in a financial year and to submit this report to the Election Commission. After the introduction of the Scheme and amendments introduced under the Finance Act, 2017, the RP Act now creates an exemption to this reporting requirement for contributions made in the form of electoral bonds to political parties. While, the Scheme specifies that the know your customer (KYC) norms of a bank will apply to the buyers of an electoral bond, this does not help introduce any real transparency because the Election Commission will be unable to access this data which is the confidential information of banks.
In effect therefore, the Election Commission will have little to no information on the contributions received by political parties received in the form of electoral bonds. Another law that has been amended to further discourage transparency is the I-T Act. Prior to the amendment under the Finance Act, 2017, in order to avail tax benefits and reliefs under the Act, a political party was required to maintain a record of each contribution that was over Rs 20,000. After the amendment, the contributions made to a political party by way of electoral bonds have been excluded from the ambit of this requirement. Therefore, in order to avail reliefs under the I-T Act, no such record is required to be maintained by political parties if they are funded through electoral bonds.
It is therefore obvious, that while the government made claims that it was introducing this Scheme to bring greater transparency, in reality the government has made the entire system more opaque and attempted to fool the ordinary citizen by glossing over these unpleasant details.
How do we stem the rot?
While it is important to critically analyze the Government for its lack of drive and motivation in tackling corruption and introducing transparency in the political system, it is also important to suggest measures that in my opinion can help stem the rot of corruption in our system.
One such measure is a shift in the approach of our investigative agencies towards investigating and prosecuting corruption. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is the premier investigating agency in India that typically investigates cases of corruption in India. Currently the CBI looks into all cases of corruption across departments and more importantly across the entire spectrum of public officials in our system. In case of the Indian police service, this means that allegations of corruption against a police constable as well as a Director General of Police are investigated by our investigating agencies. While there is no denying that all acts of corruption are condemnable and should be dealt with sternly, our primary goal should be to find the most efficient way to tackle corruption as comprehensively as possible.
In order to achieve this objective, it is my opinion that more focus should be placed on investigating and prosecuting high level Government officials like Joint Secretary & above (Equivalent Rank) as well as MLA’s and MP’s. By ensuring that high-ranking corrupt officials are brought to justice and honest, competent officers occupy higher positions of responsibility it is likely that such competent, honest individuals will implement practices and policies that encourage transparency and reduce corruption in the entire department and therefore help ensure that day to day corruption that ordinary citizens face are minimized as well. By adopting such an approach, the CBI can use its resources in a more focused, efficient manner rather than spreading itself thin chasing every instance of corruption.
As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. So another way in which corruption can be reduced is by introducing greater transparency in our system. The Right to Information Act was a big step in this direction. In order to move forward in this direction, we should strive to ensure that all government documents (other than such matters which are sensitive or relating to national security) should be accessible to the public. Such a move will help ensure that the citizens of the country to provide a check against an abuse of power in the Government.
At the end of the day, we must remember that the problem of corruption is a massive problem that cannot be tackled by sweeping statements or empty gestures. It requires a sustained committed approach and should not be reduced to a marketing campaign. However, I am aware that the BJP and the Prime Minister are big advocates of the hashtag culture so I humbly request Prime Minister Modi to undertake this #seriousaboutcorruption challenge.
(The writer is Jharkhand PCC president, former MP and IPS officer. Views expressed are personal)
Writer: Ajoy Kumar