The Aam Aadmi Party’s decision to not put up a list of its donors on its website, apparently to ensure their privacy and safety, has once again raised questions of its apparent lack of transparency.
After the decision was reported by the media on Friday, party leader and Delhi Labour Minister Gopal Rai told Scroll.in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre was harassing the donors, all of whom were from within the country. “They [Centre] want to manipulate public perception of the party,” he said. “We want a mechanism where we put a list but the Centre harasses us.”
Aam Aadmi Party national secretary Pankaj Gupta had a slightly different take on the subject. Gupta said the donors were not facing any trouble and that both they and the party wanted their names publicly listed. “We want to make changes on the website but we do not have the bandwidth,” he explained. “We want to add the list in such a manner that you can see people’s names but the information cannot be misused. Our technical team is ready with solutions. The Election Commission gets a list anyway.” He claimed that 98% of the donors were “known sources”.
On September 11, the Election Commission had served a showcause notice to the party, seeking an explanation within 20 days for alleged financial discrepancies in 2014-2015. This was after it received a report from the Central Board of Direct Taxes in January about a mismatch in the party’s actual and reported donations in that period. The board alleged the party had not disclosed the source of funds amounting to Rs 13 crore. It reportedly said this was in violation of a section of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, under which parties must disclose the details of all donations in excess of Rs 20,000.
This is not the first time the Arvind Kejriwal-led party that has ruled Delhi since 2015 has come under scrutiny for failing to keep its election promise of being transparent. In 2016, it had removed its donors’ list from its website citing the same reasons, but uploaded it again after facing criticism.
After its decision last week, Scroll.in checked the party’s website and found the information on donors was not available.
AAP versus Centre again
The Aam Aadmi Party claims the Election Commission notice is the result of “poor interpretation of basic accounting practices by the Central Board of Direct Taxes”. It has also accused the poll panel, income tax department and Central government of bias. “Even the amount of donations in the original contribution report is mentioned wrongly in the notice,” the party’s national treasurer, ND Gupta, said in a statement. “The Election Commission has copy-pasted and referred grossly incorrect and biased observations of the I-T [income tax] department in its notice. Even bank transfers between different state units of the AAP have been treated as fresh donations.”
The allegations of bias are part of a long-running feud between the elected government in Delhi and the Centre, which oversees much of the Capital’s administration through the lieutenant governor. Earlier this year, the two sides clashed over what the Aam Aadmi Party called a months-long strike by Delhi bureaucrats that had paralysed its functioning. It accused the Centre of instigating the bureaucrats to strike work. Then, the cancellation of 2.5 lakh ration cards in August by the food commissioner, who answers to the lieutenant governor, set off another row.
However, Mayank Gandhi, who quit the Aam Aadmi Party in 2015, called the party’s latest claim of harassment a charade. “There is no way an income tax officer can look each person up,” Gandhi said. “This is just a story. It was found that the figures on the website, in the accounting books and what they have submitted to the income tax department have variants, which is why the Election Commission sent them a notice. Now, they are trying to hide under the guise of harassment. Earlier, the people who were officially giving funds were doing so with conviction. So why would they want to hide?”
‘Nobody wants to be transparent’
Experts say all political parties tend to hide their sources of income.
The Association of Democratic Reforms, a non-governmental organisation that studies elections and political parties, analysed the fund sources of regional parties for 2016-2017. According to it, the Aam Aadmi Party is one of three parties that declared donations received from union or party units.
“There is a principle some parties follow through which they get a certain sum of money from their members,” said Trilochan Sastry, professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru, and co-founder of the association.
The study looked at the income tax reports and donation reports of various parties. According to its income tax report for 2016-2017, the Aam Aadmi Party’s total income was Rs 30.8 crore. Its donation report said its income from known sources – including donations from corporate houses, individuals and contributors within the party – was Rs 24.7 crore. Contributions by individuals topped the list at Rs 20.8 crore, followed by Rs 3.8 crore from corporate houses.
“Nobody wants to be transparent,” said Sastry. “The sources of income are all opaque and this comes across for all parties. We do not know where most of the money comes from. It could be through sale of coupons, relief fund and other contributions which are not in public domain.”
Jagdeep Chhokar, former dean of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and founding member of the Association of Democratic Reforms, said the study also revealed a “pattern” of national and regional parties that are in power or likely to win elections receiving more donations. “But what parties declare in tax reports is not the only money they have,” he pointed out. “There is a strong desire in all political parties to hide their sources of income. This means that there is something to hide – but transparency is essential.”