The Big Story: Bankrupting democracy

Corruption as an issue has dogged India ever since Independence. Like clockwork, each election – Assembly or Lok Sabha – is fought with the promise to eradicate graft in the system. Yet, India’s politics today seems to be more under the influence of money than ever before.

Nothing captures this paradox better than the Union government’s announcement on Tuesday introducing electoral bonds. The bonds are promissory notes that can be purchased from the State Bank of India and used to make a donation to a political party.

So far, so good. But here’s the glaring hole: the donor can remain anonymous. Given that these bonds were meant to replace anonymous cash donations – which are untraceable – it is unclear how they increase the transparency of India’s political funding.

If anything, it could make the system worse. Given that the State Bank of India is owned by the Union government, this raises the spectre that data on donors could be made available to the ruling party to be used to its benefit.

This is not the first time the Bharatiya Janata Party has – with the supposed aim of political transparency – clouded up matters to its own advantage. In March, 2017, the Union government piloted an act through Parliament that actually removed a cap on how much money corporations can donate to political parties. The act even changed the rules to allow companies to keep secret the names of the parties they had donated to.

Like bonds, the BJP was a direct beneficiary of this move given it is, by some distance, the favoured donor for large corporations.

The ill effects of large amounts of anonymous money driving politics can be significant. In 2010, for example, the United States Supreme Court delivered a controversial judgement that allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns with no disclosure. The result was an explosion of money in political campaigning (one estimate saw it double). Moreover, the bulk of this increase was provided by a handful of super wealthy billionaires, hollowing out American democracy and making it less answerable to the individual voter and more responsive to deep-pocket special interest groups. With these new changes, India’s democracy seems to be going down the same path.

The Big Scroll

In name of transparency, BJP has made it easier for parties to get anonymous corporate funds, writes Rohan Venkataramakrishnan.

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