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India bank ordered to publish anonymous election bond data

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India’s top court on Monday ordered the state-run bank to publish details of previously anonymous political donations made in the form of controversial electoral bonds – with the disclosures to be made before upcoming national polls.

Last month, the Supreme Court outlawed the scheme, under which individuals and companies could anonymously buy electoral bonds, saying it “infringes upon the right of information of the voter”.

Electoral bonds have been a key method of political funding, allowing donors to give anonymously through certificates purchased from the State Bank of India (SBI).

Critics condemned the campaign financing method as an opaque way to funnel “black money” to parties, but supporters say it provides better regulation than cash donations, which are still legal.

The SBI had requested an extension on publishing the bond details until June 30 – by which time the general election would have been completed.

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Nearly a billion people are eligible to cast ballots in the elections, likely to be held in April and May, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi widely expected to win a third term in power.

But Chief Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud gave the SBI until March 12 to comply, warning if the bank failed to do so it risked being charged with “wilful disobedience”.

The court also directed the Election Commission to publish the details shared by the bank on its official website on March 15.

The SBI had argued it needed more time to prepare the “complex” payment details, but the court said the information was “already available” within the bank.

Apart from the chief justice, the bench also included Justices Sanjiv Khanna, B R Gavai, J B Pardiwala, and Manoj Misra.

The initial court order on February 15 argued that information about political party funding was “essential for the effective exercise of the choice of voting”.

It ruled that the SBI must submit details of each bond — including who purchased it — since April 2019 to the Electoral Commission, which must publish those details on its website by March 13.

In addition to concerns the scheme allowed huge anonymous donations to parties, critics also feared it gave the government the power to access donor details through the state-owned SBI.

Modi’s party has previously defended electoral bonds, arguing the process is more transparent than direct cash donations because it is channelled through the banking system.

Cash donations are still allowed but carry no tax exemption.

Individuals and companies bought 165.18 billion rupees ($2 billion) of such bonds in total up to November 2023, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a non-government civil society group. The group was a petitioner challenging the system.

There was no immediate reaction from the government or BJP to Monday’s court order. BJP had on Feb. 15 said it was committed to reforming electoral funding and would abide by the court ruling scrapping the bonds.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is a victory for transparency, accountability, and level playing field in democracy,” Mallikarjun Kharge, president of the main opposition Congress party, posted on X.

“This judgment is a big step forward in ensuring transparency in political funding and particularly electoral funding,” said Sitaram Yechury, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). (Agencies)

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