Hush cash in vote banks

We need to know who funds the guys we vote for

We have a right to know about the guys we vote for. They have to tell us if they have been accused of crimes, how much money they have in banks and stocks, how much gold in lockers and ornaments, how many homes, plots and shops they own, and even how deep in debt they are.

That’s what we call transparency in democracy.

The guys who are seeking our votes make it plain to us when they file nominations. If we find later that they had lied in those statements, we can get the courts to throw them out.

Not possible? Ask the voters of Hassan. Two months ago, the Karnataka High Court unseated their MP, Prajwal Revanna, for having concealed much of his money and assets from his nomination affidavit. Revanna has since got a stay on the disqualification, but can’t vote in the house till the Supreme Court decides the case.

Imaging: Deni Lal Imaging: Deni Lal

That’s what we call accountability in democracy.

Most of these guys seek our votes in the name of their parties, the policies that the parties pursue, and the ideologies the parties espouse. Parties lend them their symbols, manpower and money in the elections. Extending the logic of transparency and accountability, don’t we also have a right to know who gives money to these parties?

No, says R. Venkataramani, our attorney-general. The citizen ought to know of the candidate’s wealth and crimes so as to make informed choices, but that doesn’t mean he ought to know who is funding the candidate’s party—the AG stated in a Supreme Court case that is challenging the anonymity clause in the electoral bonds scheme.

As written in this column earlier, use or abuse of money power had always been the bane of Indian politics. Rich traders made and unmade kings and kingdoms in mediaeval India. Banker Jagat Seth bankrolled the battle of Plassey. For the next one century, we were ruled by or in the name of a company. The freedom movement was bankrolled by native corporates.

Post-independence, corporates funded parties that served their interests. When she found more cheques being issued in favour of the rightist Swatantra, Jan Sangh and Congress (O), Indira Gandhi banned corporate funding to parties. Funding went under the table. Campaign cash came to be carried in huge chests in chartered jets and express trains.

Rajiv Gandhi lifted the ban on corporate donation in 1985, but the cash chest culture continued. Several venerable political figures were 'caught' with suitcases of currency, the most infamous being the claim by big bull Harshad Mehta that he had carried currency worth 01 crore in a suitcase into PM Narasimha Rao's home.

Then came the hawala scam which singed several reputations. As a few leaders declared they would take money only in cheques, corporates floated electoral trusts. The Manmohan Singh regime gave legal sanctity to this in 2013 by amending the Companies Act so as to allow corporates to donate up to 7.5 per cent of the average of their previous three years' profit.

Campaign costs soared in the Narendra Modi era of laser dazzle and data analytics. Arun Jaitley's 2017 budget unveiled a scheme by which Indian citizens and entities were enabled to buy bonds of Rs1,000 and above from designated banks, and donate the bonds to the parties. The parties can cash the bonds, and keep the money.

Clean and white? Indeed, but for one clause. If a donor wants to stay anonymous, his name appears nowhere in public domain. With neither the voters nor the auditors coming to know who donated how much to who, the scheme has turned out to be as opaque as the old treasure chests and suitcases.