The Congress, with ₹500 crore in electoral bonds, says it opposes electoral bonds

The Congress, with ₹500 crore in electoral bonds, says it opposes electoral bonds

While rallying against anonymous donors, the Congress declined to reveal its own.

By Ayush Tiwari

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The Indian National Congress on Monday held a press conference at its headquarters in New Delhi. The event was meant to target the Bharatiya Janata Party and the government that it leads at the Centre over the controversial electoral bond system that was launched in March 2018.

Earlier in the day, Newslaundry Hindi had reported, using unpublished government documents, that the Modi government in 2017 had amended the Reserve Bank of India Act to introduce electoral bonds by steamrolling over strong objections from the RBI: the very institution that the Act birthed. 

Electoral bonds are instruments meant to channel funds to political parties without disclosing the identity of the donor. The report showed that weeks before it was proposed, the RBI had told the finance ministry, then led by the late BJP leader Arun Jaitley, that the amendment “would seriously undermine a core principle of central banking legislation and doing so would set a bad precedent”.

Hours after the report came out, the Congress was ready to make some noise. Presided by Pranav Jha, Rajeev Gowda and Pawan Khera, the press conference attracted about 30 journalists with 10 cameras setups in the press hall at 24, Akbar Road.

“Clearly, this is an elaborate shell out aimed at curbing our ability as a public, our ability as Opposition parties, from understanding who is contributing to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its coffers,” said Rajeev Gowda, a Rajya Sabha member and the Congress national spokesperson, talking about electoral bonds. He explained why he was singling out the BJP: “Look at the actual numbers that have transpired in terms of electoral bond funding of approximately ₹6,000 crores that have been bought and donated. Ninety-five per cent plus [of this] has gone to one single party: the BJP. This is clearly a case of khaya bhi, aur khilaya bhi.”

Gowda continued: “Basically, we ask that there are so many issues that have to be addressed in the context of this fraudulent electoral bond scheme. It’s a fraud on the people of India and it’s a fraud on the electoral process. It eliminates a level playing field that needs to be there in a true democracy.”

The Congress, with ₹500 crore in electoral bonds, says it opposes electoral bonds

The press conference of the Indian National Congress on November 18.

Then national spokesperson Pawan Khera took over. “Political donation is a very important aspect of a democratic country and its electoral system,” he began. “Where is the donation coming from, and which party is receiving how much donation — these are crucial facts for voters and citizens of India. These aspects make it clear if a government has taken decisions in favour of a corporate house, under their influence. Whether it has moved a file that is dear to that corporate house or halted one that belongs to its enemies, etc, etc.”

Khera said that electoral bonds “have become a mechanism for converting black money to the bonds, and despite opposition from the RBI and Election Commission, the government went ahead with the scheme.”

Although the Congress tried to make electoral bonds synonymous with the BJP in the press conference, it is well-known that the grand old party itself is a recipient of funds through this “fraudulent” scheme.

A report in The Hindu in April claimed that even though the riches of this scheme went disproportionately into the BJP’s pockets, the Congress too made crores out of it. In the financial year 2017-18, the Congress received ₹142 crore in total contributions. Of this, 3.5 per cent — or ₹5 crore — came from electoral bonds. 

However, this ₹5 crore came out of the maiden tranche of electoral bonds, which amounted to ₹222 crore. ₹210 crore, or 95 per cent of the total, went to the BJP.

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a whopping ₹6,128 crore has been sold in electoral bonds as of October 2019. The scheme is merely 20 months old, which makes it ₹306 crore every month since March 2018, or ₹10 crore every day.  

Once the press conference was open for questions, journalists asked the spokespersons about the funds contributed to parties through trusts, the erosion of institutions, and the government formation in Maharashtra. Some began to slowly drift towards the pakodas being served in a corner of the hall. 

Newslaundry asked Rajeev Gowda if the Congress would lead by example and reveal the funds it has received through electoral bonds and also its donors.

“See, we’ve not asked for…umm…” — Gowda cleared his throat, stammered — “Congress has received electoral bonds of about ₹500 crore worth, and the answers to the rest of your question shall be taken up later.”

We confirmed the number: ₹500 crore? “Yes, out of a total of ₹6,000 crore, most of which went to the Bharatiya Janata Party,” Gowda said.

After the press conference, Gowda invited some journalists to his office which stands right opposite Sonia Gandhi’s. Here, I hoped that my question, as Gowda had said, “shall be taken up”. Sitting under five large portraits of Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Ambedkar and Azad, the national spokesperson told me he “had not asked the Bharatiya Janata Party to reveal its donors, so why ask the grand old party to reveal its donors?”

This is sophistry. Gowda’s argument is that the Congress demanded that either the government of India or the State Bank of India reveal the donors of electoral bonds — not the governing party. So since the Congress did not ask another political party to come out in the open about anonymous funding, the Congress shouldn’t be expected to do so either.

This would mean that the Congress opposes anonymous, unchecked political funding as long as its rival monopolises most of it. This opposition does not arise from principle. 

Newslaundry asked Gowda if he had any knowledge of Congress Members of Parliament standing up against the introduction of electoral bonds in the Lok Sabha in 2017.

“No, not really. I certainly opposed it in the Rajya Sabha. In the Lok Sabha, they [the BJP] have this brute majority. So even speaking opportunities are small,” Gowda said.

In March 2017, when amendments allowing for electoral bonds were being debated in the Parliament, vocal opposition to it had come from NK Premchandran of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and Bhatruhari Mahtab of the Biju Janata Dal, among others.