Electoral bonds | Supreme Court nixes SBI plea for more time to provide details

Supreme Court says the information on electoral bonds required to be divulged by the judgment was ‘readily available’ with the bank.

March 11, 2024 11:06 am | Updated 05:04 pm IST - New Delhi

In a landmark verdict delivered on February 15, a five-judge constitution Bench scrapped the Centre’s electoral bonds scheme. File

In a landmark verdict delivered on February 15, a five-judge constitution Bench scrapped the Centre’s electoral bonds scheme. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed an application by the State Bank of India (SBI) for time till June 30, 2024 to provide details of electoral bonds purchased anonymously and their encashment by political parties.

A five-judge Bench headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, which had on February 15 struck down the electoral bonds scheme as unconstitutional, gave the bank 24 hours, that is, by the close of business hours on March 12, to provide the details to the Election Commission of India (ECI).

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The court said the information on electoral bonds required to be divulged by the judgment was “readily available” with the bank. Once the bank forwards the details, the ECI has to go ahead and publish the data on its official website on March 15 by 5 p.m.

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The court had originally, in its judgment, required the bank to pass on the complete details of the bonds purchased from April 12, 2019 to February 15, 2024; the dates of purchase; the names of the purchasers; the denominations of the bonds purchased along with the details of bonds redeemed by political parties, including the dates of encashment and denominations of the electoral bonds. The judgment had given the bank time till March 6.

However, the bank had applied for an extension of time till June 30, possibly well after the Lok Sabha polls, to give the ECI the details. The bank’s request came exactly two days before the court’s March 6 deadline.

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Senior advocate Harish Salve, for the SBI, explained that matching the bonds purchased and names of donors with the parties which redeemed the bonds was a “time-consuming and complex” exercise. Details were kept in two separate silos and not stored in a digital format. The judgment had capsized the “core purpose” of the electoral bonds scheme, which was “utmost secrecy”.

“We have to reverse the whole process”, Mr. Salve argued.

But Chief Justice Chandrachud said the judgment had not asked the bank to “match” information to ascertain who contributed to which political parties.

“We did not tell you to match the details. We had only asked you to do a plain disclosure. We just wanted you to comply with the judgment,” the Chief Justice asked Mr. Salve.

The Chief Justice said the SBI had in its own application said the information was easily accessible.

Chief Justice Chandrachud said contributors, whether they had SBI accounts or not, at the time of purchase of an electoral bond, had to submit to the bank their bond applications, Know Your Customer documentation and proof of payment through NEFT, cheque or demand draft.

Similarly, political parties, in order to redeem a bond, had to open current accounts in any of the authorised branches in Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai or New Delhi.

“There is no dispute that the process was followed by the bank. So, the information is available,” the court noted.

Justice Sanjiv Khanna asked whether the bank wanted a specific judicial order to open the sealed covers containing the bonds’ details right here in the courtroom.

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“Comply with what is in black and white in the judgment,” Justice B.R. Gavai, on the Bench, addressed Mr. Salve.

Chief Justice Chandrachud pointed out that the SBI had not even bothered to mention what it had been doing for the past 26 days since the February 15 judgment.

“You are the SBI… There should be some candour from your part. What have you been doing for the past 26 days? There is not a word about that in your application,” Chief Justice Chandrachud said.

The court said the SBI chose to have an Assistant General Manager file the application seeking more time in response to a Constitution Bench judgment of the Supreme Court.

“He is the man on the spot,” Mr. Salve replied.

The court said it did not want to initiate contempt proceedings against the SBI as of now. However, the Bench said it was putting the bank on notice, saying it would take action if SBI did not comply with the directions of March 11.

Contempt petitions filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms, Common Cause and Communist Party of India (Marxist) had contended the bank was deliberately trying to ensure that details of donors and the amounts contributed to political parties anonymously were not disclosed to the public before the Lok Sabha elections due in April-May.

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