Will Narendra Modi take the big call of banning all anonymous donations to political parties?

The Election commission (EC) of India made a strong plea to the government last Sunday (18 December) asking for a ban on anonymous contribution to political parties above Rs 2000. The Prime Minister of India appears to have endorsed the plea in his address at a political rally at Kanpur on Monday. Although no government notification has been issued yet, the prime ministerial form of democracy in India today would ensure that the prime minister’s wishes would be actualised, sooner than later.

Many political commentators, especially the BJP spokespersons, have gone to town hailing the EC recommendation and the PM’s endorsement of it as a major step for political reform in India. It is being seen as a continuation of the effort of the current government to unearth the unaccounted-for money.

But the appearances are often deceptive. The current move may clearly be seen as a sop to hoodwink the masses. The Election Commission, with its vast reservoir of practical experience and raw data, ought to know that the very provision of anonymous donation – be it Rs 20,000 or Rs 2000 – is a ploy of the political class to keep itself beyond the pale of law; it is a loophole that political parties of all ideological persuasions — left, right and centre — have used to legitimately launder black money.

 Will Narendra Modi take the big call of banning all anonymous donations to political parties?

Representational image. PTI

Under the current law, political parties are required to declare all the donations above Rs 20,000 under section 29C of the Representation of the People (RP) Act, 1951. This has resulted in a queer situation: whichever corporate bodies or wealthy individuals wish to contribute Rs 20,000 or above to the coffers of a political party on record are mentioned by name in the submissions of the political parties to the Election Commission and the income tax department. Those who wish to part with some of their ill-gotten wealth to curry favour with a political party conveniently remain anonymous under this provision.

The data compiled by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) tells us that donor identification is made for just about 25 per cent of the annual income of the two major national parties in Indian politics: the BJP and the Congress. About 75 percent of their respective income comes from anonymous sources.

The percentage of anonymous contribution to the treasury of most other national and regional parties is even higher. Take for instance the case of the Bahujan Samaj Party; it has declared year after year an annual income of about Rs 300 crore but it has been claiming that all of it has been a summation of small contributions of less than Rs 20,000. So, all the contributors to the BSP’s kitty remain anonymous.

This has been, more or less, the practice adopted by most other parties.

This situation will hardly change if the Election Commission’s new fiat is enforced by reducing the scope of anonymous contribution to Rs 2000. Regional parties like BSP will continue to claim that all their earnings come from donations of less than Rs 2000. Major national parties like the Congress and the BJP would continue to claim that, apart from the on-record big contributions from the business houses, the majority of their earnings came from small contributions of less than Rs 2000.

The Congress government, while it was in power, had deliberately kept this loophole to facilitate the receipt of large amount of black money that came its way as the ruling party. The smaller parties then did not protest as they were also the beneficiary of the ill-gotten wealth, however small in comparison.

When the BJP-led government came to power at the Centre in 1999, it, no wonder, did not do away with the Section 29C of the PR Act; rather it vigorously resisted all attempts to make the electoral process more transparent. When the Supreme Court of India, while adjudicating upon the petition filed by the ADR, made it mandatory for all candidates to declare their income and assets, along with other relevant personal information (2 May, 2002), the ruling BJP joined hands with the Congress and every other party in Parliament to pass an amendment to the PR Act so as to override the Supreme Court’s decision. Credit must be given to the tenacity of the SC bench which declared such an amendment ultra vires of the Constitution.

If Atal Behari Vajpayee, as prime minister, sought to reinforce, rather than negate, the Congress legacy of a opaque political and electoral process, can and will Narendra Modi be any different?
There is a clear difference between the two BJP prime ministers – Modi speaks about corruption-free India more often than Vajpayee did. But will those words ever turn into meaningful action?
The demonetisation of high denomination currency notes (8 November) was initially touted as a ‘surgical strike’ against black money. But within a few weeks, the goalpost changed; it is now being seen more as a move to usher in a ‘cashless India’.

If Prime Minister Modi genuinely wants to see a corruption-free India, then he has to strike at the root of all corruption – political funding. In order to do so, he has to go beyond supporting the rather limited recommendation of the EC; he must take the big step to ban all anonymous donations to political parties.

The Narendra Modi government just needs to make one amendment to the People’s Representation Act: that all political parties -- to be eligible to contest elections and field candidates -- will have to declare all their earnings and all their expenditure to the Election Commission on a monthly basis. By doing so, the Modi government would have struck a lethal blow to the mother of all corruption.

Will Narendra Modi do it? Well, that would depend how does he want to go down in history – as a great saviour of Indian democracy or as its false icon?

Updated Date: Dec 21, 2016 11:46:25 IST