SC rejects SBI’s extension plea, seeks ‘plain disclosure’ of electoral bonds

Even if the SBI provides the data sought by SC, many questions may remain unanswered. As per the CJI's response to SBI's counsel, the court only seeks 'plain disclosure' of details and it is not looking for 'matching exercise'

The Supreme Court of India, on Monday, March 11, dismissed the State Bank of India’s plea seeking an extension of time in furnishing details of the electoral bonds and directed it to furnish the details to the Election Commission (EC) by March 12.

The apex court also directed the EC to publish the details shared by SBI on its official website by 5 pm on March 15. Along with the SBI petition, the SC was also hearing contempt plea filed Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), Common Cause, and CPI(M) against the public sector bank over its non-disclosure of vital details related to the electoral bonds.

Even as the SC bench, headed by chief justice of India, refused to grant extension to SBI, the bank’s counsel was told that the SC was not looking for ‘matching exercise’ of who purchased the bonds for which party. The CJI insisted on ‘plain disclosure’ of details in two sets.

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What did the SC say?

Appearing on behalf of SBI, senior advocate Harish Salve said that since the bank needs to match the donor with the beneficiary, in this case, the individual/organisation who purchased an electoral bond for a political party, the process will take a long time as everything is secretive.

“The only problem.. the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) the bank followed was to make sure that there was no connection between the name of the purchaser and the bond number in our core banking system because we, as a bank were, told that this is [transaction was] supposed to be a secret,” he told the five-judge Constitution Bench presided by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud.

In response, the CJI replied, “If you see the directions which we have issued… we have not told you to do the matching exercise. We have asked you for a plain disclosure. Therefore the grounds on which you seek an extension of time to make the disclosure does not accord with the directions of the judgement at all. The judgment does not tell you to do that exercise.”

What does the CJI’s reply mean?

According to the CJI, SBI has to produce the electoral bond information in two sets.

1.) In the first set, the details of the individual/organisation who purchased the electoral bond.

2.) In the second set, the details of the political party that encashed the electoral bond, including the date of encashment of each bond and the denomination of the bond encashed.

For example, let ‘A’ be the individual/organisation who purchased an electoral bond and ‘B’ be the political party for whom the bond was purchased.

According to the Supreme Court’s March 11 verdict, A‘s information will be in one set of data while B‘s information will be in another set of data. This implies that a taxpayer will fail to directly link which A (individual/organisation) sent how much money to which B (political party) and in what amount.

According to legal experts, the Supreme Court’s order completely overlooks the purpose with which the electoral bonds were declared ‘unconstitutional’. Because the taxpayer will still have no clue on who donated how much money, and to which political party.

Even if the SBI provides the data sought by SC, many questions may remain unanswered. According to the CJI’s response to SBI’s counsel, the court only seeks ‘plain disclosure’ of details of donors and beneficiary political parties. It may not include details such as which individual or organisation donated to which political party, how much money was donated, when was the donation made, etc.

Who benefits from the SC order?

According to reports, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as the biggest beneficiary of the electoral bond scheme.

According to an article by Scroll, as many as seven national parties and 24 regional parties received money through electoral bonds.

The Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) stated that the total number of electoral bonds purchased till April 2023 was recorded as Rs 12,979 crore.

Of this, the ruling BJP government received electoral bonds worth Rs 6,566.12 crore – more than 50% of all bonds sold. This was followed by the Indian National Congress, which received Rs 1,123.29 crore.

In other words, the BJP received 17.1% more money than the Congress and other political parties combined.

Similarly, in April 2022, The BJP received a total of Rs 5,271.97 crore out of the total Rs 9,856.72 crore money received through electoral bonds.

The Congress had received Rs 952.29 crore, followed by the Trinamool Congress with Rs 767.88 crore, Biju Janata Dal with Rs 622 crore, and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (now BRS) with Rs 383.65 crore.

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