The Economic Times
New Delhi

NEW DELHI: After the Supreme Court shook up the political system with its landmark recent decision on disqualifying convicted politicians, the Election Commission of India (ECI) is all set to follow its lead.

To usher in more transparency in political funding, the Commission is working on guidelines to ensure that parties and candidates identify each and every donor, irrespective of the money donated by them.

Currently, a bulk of the funds raised by political parties cannot be traced to any individual or organisation. Parties are not obliged to identify donors who have contributed less than 20,000. According to an analysis done by the Association of Democratic reforms (ADR), six national parties - Congress, BJP, BSP, NCP, CPI and CPM - attribute over 75% of their funds, raised between 2004 to 2012, to such donors. The Commission has now circulated a letter among all recognised political parties seeking their feedback on draft guidelines that will make it mandatory for them to maintain details of every donor/donation, irrespective of the amount, even if it has been raised through sale of coupons.

Such anonymous benefactors accounted for 75% of the funds collected by six national parties --Congress, BJP, BSP, NCP, CPI and CPM - between 2004 and 2012, according to the Association of Democratic reforms (ADR), which analysed data sourced from contribution statements submitted by these parties to the EC and their tax returns. The Commission has circulated a letter among all recognised political parties seeking their feedback on draft guidelines that will make it mandatory for them to maintain details of every donor/ donation, irrespective of the amount, even if it has been raised through sale of coupons. EC sources said only three political parties —Trinamool Congress, AIADMK and a regional party from Mizoram — have sent their suggestions on the draft guidelines.

"Unfortunately none of the national parties have responded to our letter, so we have sent them another reminder. We are giving them ample opportunity to respond, so that there are no complaints later," said one EC official, who did not wish to be identified.

Already, there are suggestions that the EC could exploit the judicial cover provided by the Supreme Court and the prevailing national mood caused by the brouhaha over the now junked ordinance on shielding convicted politicians.

Anti-corruption activist and political debutante Arvind Kejriwal said he was glad the EC has set the ball rolling for such guidelines. "In the context of the current mood of the nation, the EC should revive its long-pending proposal for electoral reforms," said the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, which plans to contest the Delhi assembly elections.

His fledgling party, born out of the Jan Lokpal movement, claims to be the only political outfit in the country that identifies each and every donor. Till date, AAP has disclosed the names of all donors who have together donated over Rs 11 crore to the party. The website also mentions the receipt number for every donation.

  •   "The EC should strike when the iron is hot. A lot of the (electoral) reforms proposed by the EC were done before Rahul Gandhi's outburst. I think they should revive it all now because the mood has changed," said sociologist and political analyst Dipankar Gupta. "The political parties may not immediately oppose the proposed guidelines on transparency in political funding. But having said that, I don't think they will take this lying down for too long."

An order of the Chief Information Commissioner earlier this year bringing political parties under the ambit of Right to Information (RTI) provisions has already sought to be blunted, with the government moving an amendment to the legislation. The Bill is now being examined by a parliamentary panel.

The EC's draft guidelines suggest that all donations and contributions should be acknowledged with a receipt and should be deposited in bank accounts "within a reasonable time".

According to ADR, of the Rs 2,365 crore raised by Congress party between 2004 and 2012, almost Rs 2,000 crore could not be traced to an individual or organisation. Similarly, the BJP attributed Rs 952 crore out of the total Rs 1,304 crore raised between 2004 and 2012 to unknown sources.

India's record in transparency in political funding has attracted criticism at home and abroad, with many calling it the biggest blot on the world's largest democracy.

According to the Stockholm-based International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), India is among just 10% of countries in the world that allow both political parties and candidates to receive anonymous donations. Even its neighbours such as Nepal and Bhutan have more transparency in political funding, the study notes.

When the EC's proposed guidelines will be implemented is not known, nor whether these will be binding on all political parties. But experts say it's the EC's call.

"The scope of these guidelines will only be known once the EC formally issues a notification. But it's possible that these guidelines will be binding on all parties as under Article 324 of the Indian Constitution, the EC has plenary powers to take any action to conduct free and fair elections," said Professor Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member of ADR.

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