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How the Selective Transparency of Electoral Bonds Was Designed to Benefit the BJP

The big picture of electoral bonds is not their impact on cleaning up political funding but the endgame of BJP’s politics of corruption.
Illustration: The Wire

The Supreme Court has struck down the electoral bonds scheme holding that anonymous electoral bonds are violative of the voter’s right to information under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. In doing so, the court rejected the BJP-led Central government’s contention that electoral bonds were a way to curb black money in political financing while correctly expanding the ambit of political corruption to covert illegitimate influence over decision-making irrespective of the manner of financial contribution.

What rendered the electoral bonds particularly pernicious was their architecture designed to provide two unique advantages to the ruling party: shielding unlimited corporate donations to its own account from public scrutiny while rendering donations to all other political parties transparent to the Central government thus exposing supporters of the opposition to retributive action.

In fact, other than this selective transparency designed to benefit the BJP, electoral bonds offer no gains over the stipulation that donations over a set threshold be made electronically. Unsurprisingly, the BJP cornered the lion’s share of all electoral bonds. Notably, the Supreme Court has attempted to fix this anomaly of selective transparency by mandating the Election Commission to make public relevant details of all electoral bonds.

Also read: The SC’s Electoral Bonds Judgement Affirms the Primacy of the Vote Over the Note

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that electoral bonds represented only a fraction of political funding. The world’s largest democracy also holds the most expensive national elections spending an estimated $8.7 billion in the 2019 elections alone. Yet electoral bonds over the last five years account for only about $2 billion. The big picture of electoral bonds is thus not their impact on cleaning up political funding but the endgame of BJP’s politics of corruption.

An under-appreciated aspect of mainstream electoral politics is the centrality of pure hardcore logistics in running a political party. A political party must build organisation and mobilise the electorate across the length and depth of its electoral footprint. To do this, meetings have to be organised, grounds booked, people mobilised, distances covered, meals distributed, pamphlets printed, volunteers identified and sustained through various tangible and intangible benefits. All of this costs money. Yet there are limited sources for political parties to raise funds ranging from earnings from their own assets like fixed deposits, properties, membership fees and donations of various kinds.

In a country where 80 crore people receive free food grain and without wider politicisation of the electorate, it is difficult for political parties to sustainably raise funds from the people at large. Thus, while there are many personally honest politicians, corruption is baked into the institutional architecture of politics.

It is obvious that this kind of structural corruption cannot be fixed by tinkering at the margins of funding or by going after individuals. It is also evident that no political party – including the BJP, by far the richest political party in the country – can be immune to this corruption.

BJP’s politics of corruption is thus not about corruption at all but about neutralising the opposition and tilting the scales in its favour in an increasingly uneven contest. This is borne out too by the weaponisation of Central agencies against those standing in opposition to the BJP, not least the four-fold jump since 2014 in ED cases against politicians, 95%  of which are from opposition ranks. In fact, given the nexus between money and electoral politics, anti-corruption campaigns by mainstream political parties are almost never in good faith and have instead been deployed globally by strongmen leaders to fix internal and external opponents and weaken institutional curbs on their power.

While some BJP supporters concede BJP’s concerted and motivated action against opposition leaders, it is sometimes dismissed as having a limited impact on public interest given the endemic nature of corruption in our political architecture. This is a highly problematic summation given that democracy is first and foremost about an even contest between a plurality of choices. It is for the voter to determine the relative quality of available choices and any artificial restriction on voter’s choices is itself an attack on democracy. In any case, many of these same politicians have found welcome – and respite from Central agencies – in joining the BJP making it clear that BJP’s pursuit is power by any means and not probity in public life.

Also read: ‘Quid-Pro-Quo’: How Revealing Electoral Bonds Will Clear Questions of ‘Len-Den’

Finally, even as we argue that democracy is defined by an open contest between multiple competing alternatives and that it is for the voter to determine the relative quality of those alternatives, endemic corruption is also another kind of abridgement of democracy. Corruption too limits voters’ choice by entrenching incumbents, weakening the capacity of honest politicians to assert themselves and making it difficult for new political formations to emerge. However, our politics cannot be cleaned up through moral outrage or motivated action against individual leaders, or casual contempt of “sab chor hai”. Corruption in politics is also resistant to simple one-point reforms because of the complex architecture of power. The way forward thus requires us to think more expansively and holistically about how we should structure and sustain our core political institutions.

Ruchi Gupta writes about democracy, tech, public discourse and contestations for power in India.

This article first appeared on the author’s Substack India: Politics, Power & Public Discourse. Read the original here.

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