Snigdhendu Bhattacharya

Publication of donor details following the Supreme Court order striking down electoral bonds may embarrass both the BJP as well as some regional parties

The Supreme Court of India struck down the electoral bond scheme as “unconstitutional” right when political funding through the scheme had reached its peak. Electoral bonds sold in the last 10 months are worth more than one-third of what had been sold over the previous 63 months. Understandably so, as the elections are approaching.

The Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court not only prohibited further issuance of such bonds, which allow donors to remain anonymous, but also ordered disclosure of donor and recipient details of all political funding through it. The Election Commission of India has to make the data public by March 13, according to the court’s orders.

The government did not want donor details to be revealed, arguing that it may adversely impact donors. However, the court prioritised transparency and upheld the people’s right to information regarding the sources of funds parties are receiving.

The scheme was controversial right from the beginning. At that time, the BJP was yet to gain a majority in the Upper House. It was introduced in the Parliament in 2017 as a Money Bill, which does not require the Rajya Sabha’s endorsement to become a law. While many opposition parties criticised the move, only the CPI (M) challenged it in court. The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) was among the other petitioners.

Civil society groups alleged that anonymous funding would expand the scope for corporate influence on government policy matters and that there would be no way for people to find out if there has been a quid pro quo relating to such funding. After all, funding has evidently come in the figures of crores.

The government informed the Parliament in February—days before the apex court verdict—that electoral bonds worth Rs 16,518 crore had been sold from the inception of the scheme in January 2018 to January 2024. This figure stood at 13,791 crore in July 2023 and at 11,986.66 crore in March 2023.

So, in the 10 months between April 2023 and January 2024, electoral bonds worth Rs 4,531.34 crore were sold. This is 37.8% or more than one-third of the total electoral bond sales worth Rs 11,986.66 over the previous 63 months—between January 2018 and March 2023. No doubt, corporates suddenly took a great interest in political funding.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK chief M K Stalin wrote in a social media post that the judgement “has restored democracy and level playing field for all Parties”.

It will not be clear until the submission of the parties’ annual audit reports next year who received what share of the Rs 4,531.34 crore political funding in these 10 months. But past trends show that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been running the country since 2014, has bagged the lion’s share of political donations through the controversial scheme. Since the notification of the scheme in January 2018 till March 2023, the BJP earned Rs 6,566.12 crore through electoral bonds—54.77% of total electoral bond sales of Rs 11,986.66 crore.

Despite the BJP’s overwhelming dominance over earning donations through electoral bonds, some regional parties and opposition parties collected an even greater share of their earnings from donations via electoral bonds.

Of the total donations of Rs 11,244.97 crore that the BJP earned between 2017-18 and 2022-23, 58.39% came through electoral bonds. But the Congress got through electoral bonds Rs 63.62% of its total earnings of Rs 1,765.44 crore from donations during this period.

Among regional ruling parties: West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) received through electoral bonds 95.21% of its total donation earnings of Rs 1,147.92 crore between April 2018 and March 2023.

Odisha Chief Minister Navin Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) collected through electoral bonds 93.08% of their total earnings from donations of Rs 831.52 crore. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress got through electoral bonds 75.13% of its total donation earnings of Rs 509.02 crore. For the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the amount was 93.86% of its total earnings of Rs 656.81 crore from donations.

Therefore, when the list of donors and recipient parties is made public, it might not be the BJP alone to feel embarrassed, if at all—regional parties may have their share of embarrassment as well.

A look at the BJP’s earnings through electoral bonds shows that the biggest chunk came in 2019-20—Rs 2,555 crore. The financial year includes the Lok Sabha election months of April-May 2019 and the period after PM Modi’s return to power. There was a drop the next year, with the electoral bond earnings dipping to Rs 22.38 crore, but it went back up to Rs 1,033.7 crore in 2021-22 and Rs 1,294.14 crore in 2022-23.

In contrast, the Congress, the largest opposition party, earned Rs 1,123.31 crore through electoral bonds from January 2018 to March 2023. The Congress’ income through electoral bonds was 17.1% or roughly one-sixth of the BJP’s.

As of now, top BJP leaders are mostly maintaining silence over the verdict. Former law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the party would respect the Supreme Court order. A structured response would only be forthcoming after going through the whole order that runs over a hundred pages. The government brought in the scheme with the good intention of making political funding “transparent”, he said.

The Congress sounded hopeful that the verdict would deal a blow to the BJP. “The long-awaited verdict is hugely welcome and will reinforce the power of votes over notes,” said Congress General Secretary Jairam Ramesh. Party leader Rahul Gandhi alleged that the BJP “had made electoral bonds a medium for taking bribes and commission” and “today, it has been acknowledged.”

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) wholeheartedly welcomed the apex court verdict. AAP cabinet minister Atishi described it as “an important step in the transparency of election funding” and pointed out that it is important for democracy to know “who is giving how much money to which political party.”

AAP’s income through electoral bonds has been modest compared to other regional ruling parties: Rs 95.46 crore, which was 44.85% of its 212.82 crore total earnings through donations between 2018-19 and 2022-23. 

Among the other opposition parties, the Congress’ ally, the DMK, which has been ruling Tamil Nadu since 2021, said the apex court had “rightly held that electoral bonds are unconstitutional.” Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and party chief M K Stalin wrote in a social media post that the judgement “has restored democracy and level playing field for all political parties” and “ensured the common man’s faith in the system.” 

There has, however, been an unmissable silence from the top leadership of the TMC, the third biggest recipient of funds through electoral bonds after the BJP and the Congress.

The party’s state unit spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said that the party welcomes the apex court verdict. Rajya Sabha MP Saket Gokhale said that the most important thing to watch would be “how many of the donors who gave electoral bonds to the BJP are individuals and companies facing Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) action.” However, neither the chief minister nor her nephew, the party’s all-India General Secretary Abhishek Banerjee, have commented on the verdict till February 17 night.

This silence is quite unusual for them regarding a Supreme Court verdict impacting the whole country, all the more so when it has come as one of the biggest jolts the Modi government has faced in the apex court. From the Ram Temple to triple talaq, the TMC top leadership had commented on all major judgements on the same day so far. Only time can tell if this silence reflects a sense of uneasiness over any funding the party received through electoral bonds.

© Association for Democratic Reforms
Privacy And Terms Of Use
Donation Payment Method