Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde agreed with advocate Prashant Bhushan on Thursday to urgently hear a plea by NGO Association for Democratic Reforms to stay the sale of a new set of electoral bonds on April 1, before Assembly elections in crucial States such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.
Responding to an urgent mentioning made by Mr. Bhushan via video conferencing, Chief Justice Bobde said the matter would require a detailed hearing and posted the case for March 24.
Mr. Bhushan said the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Election Commission had both said the sale of electoral bonds had become an avenue for shell corporations and entities to park illicit money and even proceeds of bribes with political parties.
“Every time there is an election, the sale is opened. Every time this happens, we have moved the Supreme Court to stay it,” Mr. Bhushan submitted.
“But hasn’t stay been refused earlier?” Chief Justice Bobde asked.
“Not so, but parties had been asked to submit records in sealed cover… But a proper stay has to be considered. There are two documents from the RBI and the Election Commission that say the electoral bonds scheme is detrimental to democracy,” Mr. Bhushan replied.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta informed the Chief Justice that Attorney General K.K. Venugopal would be appearing in the case.
“His submissions in the Maratha quota case will start today [March 18] and he may finish it by Wednesday [March 24],” Mr. Mehta said.
“Surely, he will find time in a matter like this!” Chief Justice Bobde retorted.
The NGO, also represented by advocate Neha Rathi, has voiced serious apprehensions that the sale of electoral bonds before elections in poll-bound States would “further increase illegal and illicit funding of political parties through shell companies”.
Its application reminded the court that both the central bank and the poll panel had objected to the electoral bond scheme.
“Data obtained through RTI has shown that illegal sale windows have been opened in the past to benefit certain political parties… There is a serious apprehension that any further sale of electoral bonds before the upcoming State elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam would further increase illegal and illicit funding of political parties through shell companies,” the NGO submitted.
It said the scheme had “opened doors to unlimited political donations, even from foreign companies, thereby legitimising electoral corruption at a huge scale, while at the same time ensuring complete non-transparency in political funding”.
The government notified the scheme on January 2, 2018. It defended the scheme in court, saying it allowed anonymity to political donors to protect them from “political victimisation”.
The Ministry of Finance’s affidavit in the top court had dismissed the Election Commission’s version that the invisibility afforded to benefactors was a “retrogade step” and would wreck transparency in political funding.
The government affidavit had said the shroud of secrecy was a product of “well thought-out policy considerations”.
It said the earlier system of cash donations had raised a “concern among the donors that, with their identity revealed, there would be competitive pressure from different political parties receiving donation”.