In April, the Supreme Court ordered political parties to submit details regarding donations received through electoral bonds in sealed envelopes to the Election Commission, but stopped short of scrapping the scheme or ordering full disclosure to the public.

GoI claims that anonymity of electoral bonds is needed to prevent ruling parties from targeting the funders of their rivals. Opponents claim that public transparency is needed to prevent these parties from favouring their own funders.

Consider what happens when you hand a shopkeeper a torn currency note. The shopkeeper refuses it, and you pull out a crisp, whole note instead. Currency notes are interchangeable with each other, and there’s normally no reason to kick up a fuss. That’s fungibility — the seemingly unremarkable substitutability of one unit of money with another that allows it to be such a seamless means of exchange and valuation at the market.

Now imagine that a government feels that its intentions in taking some measure will not be acceptable to the general public, or will violate the Constitution. Should it be possible for it to hide its ‘real’ intentions and hold out a false justification instead? It is difficult to ignore how endemic doubts about intentions are across different areas in Indian governance.

For example, consider how the defence of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was couched as a question of public health, and not a lingering legacy issue from homophobic colonialism. Also, was demonetisation meant to be about eradicating black money, cutting off terror funding, moving the economy towards formalisation and digitisation? Or about building a war chest for election campaigns?

Similarly, when a state’s governor chooses a party to form the government in a hung assembly, does she always pick the one that best commands the legislature’s confidence? Or does she sometimes give a favoured party the chance to ‘buy out’ a majority? Are measures related to cow slaughter, triple talaaq and citizenship registers about animal rights, women’s rights and national integrity? Or do they hide various shades of communalism? Are daring cross-border air strikes always wellreasoned strategic manoeuvres? Or are they sometimes electoral stunts politicising the military? What’s the real reason?

Regardless of whether one considers such questions trivial or seditious, the intention here is to point out that citizens should be able to enjoy satisfactory answers to such questions.

The problem, at hand, isn’t limited to the current government, but can easily be seen in any regime that has had to come up with public justifications to shroud the actual corrupt or illicit motives for its decisions.

The real reasons for government measures may be exactly what the government declares. But it should certainly trouble us when governments, one after another, counter-intuitively declare opaque schemes like electoral trusts and bonds as improvements in transparency. Even the privacy of donors is pressed into service. It seems that the fungibility of public reasons reaches its zenith in questions of money in public life.

It suddenly becomes easy to lose sight of a simple fact regarding the two alternatives at hand: with transparency, the illicit targeting of a campaign funder can be observed and contested. But with anonymity, illicit favouritism remains a secret.

If one is really concerned that donors should be able to freely fund who they like without fearing backlash, every attempt must be made to secure legal processes to ensure that such retributive measures aren’t taken.

Solutions are unlikely to come easily from the political class. While BJP is the major beneficiary of donations now, from 2004-05 to 2011-12 and in 2012-13, it was Congress.

It seems that being the ruling party increases one’s chances of receiving funding. This is aclassic problem in electoral reforms: politicians in power are expected to make systems fairer, when they themselves are deeply interested in keeping things unfair.

If we do not want to see our electoral laws becoming unproductive battlegrounds for political rivalry, we must accept that change must come from outside politics. Our fundamental right to information under the Constitution is a good place to start.

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