Electoral bonds disclosure | Contempt plea moved against SBI for not disclosing details yet

Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who appeared in the court on behalf of the NGO, said the SBI's plea is likely to be listed on March 11 and the contempt application should also be heard together

March 07, 2024 12:35 pm | Updated 04:37 pm IST - NEW DELHI

CPI(M) workers stage a protest against the State Bank of India (SBI) moving the Supreme Court to seek more time to disclose electoral bond details, outside the SBI office, in Chennai.

CPI(M) workers stage a protest against the State Bank of India (SBI) moving the Supreme Court to seek more time to disclose electoral bond details, outside the SBI office, in Chennai. | Photo Credit: PTI

Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud on March 7 said the Supreme Court would consider listing a contempt petition against State Bank of India (SBI) Chairman Dinesh Kumar Khera for seeking time till June 30 to provide complete details of electoral bonds purchased since April 2019 to anonymously fund political parties.

The contempt petition, filed jointly by petitioners Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and Common Cause, said the Supreme Court, while striking down the electoral bonds scheme as a threat to electoral democracy, had directed the SBI to share details of the bonds sold to anonymous donors and political parties who had benefited from the transactions to the Election Commission of India by March 6, 2024. The Election Commission was ordered to publish the data obtained from the bank on its official website by March 13.

The Hindu looks at data from the Association of Democratic Reforms, which the Supreme Court refers to in its judgement, to understand the reasoning behind this landmark decision. 

However, the bank has put a spoke in the wheel by filing a nine-page application in the Supreme Court on March 4, just two days before the deadline. The bank said it needed time till June end to provide the Election Commission details about the bonds. The information and documents were scattered across its various branches and decoding them was tough and would take time.

Making an oral mentioning in court on Thursday, advocates Prashant Bhushan, Cherul D’souza and Neha Rathi, for the contempt petitioners, urged the court to list the contempt plea along with the SBI’s application on Monday (March 11).

“Once it (contempt petition) is verified by the Registry, your junior can send an email. I will pass orders,” Chief Justice Chandrachud told Mr. Bhushan.

The contempt petition said 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.

The petition said the bank’s stand was directly contradictory to an affidavit filed by the Union Government on March 15, 2019, which said information about the bonds were completely traceable and quickly available.

The Centre’s affidavit had said that the electoral bonds scheme envisaged a transparent system of acquiring bonds with validated KYC and audit trail. The SBI would record KYC, PAN, details of identity and address in full of all the donors.

“The SBI maintains a secret number-based record of donors who buy bonds and the political parties they donate to,” the contempt petition submitted.

Each electoral bond had a unique number, it said. “A simple query on the database can generate a report in a particular format which does not require any manual verification,” the petition said.

Mr. Bhushan contended that the requirement of the KYC was mentioned in Section 4 of the electoral bonds scheme itself. Clause 7 of the scheme mandated that information furnished by the buyer should be disclosed when demanded by a competent court. Clause 12 (4) of the scheme, again, required electoral bonds remaining uncashed for 15 days would be deposited by the bank to the PM relief Fund. “Thus, it is inconceivable that the SBI did record information readily available within its database,” the petition highlighted.

The contempt petition said the SBI had enough technical know-how and manpower to have got the information by March 6.

“The SBI has 2,60,000 employees, 22,500 worldwide branches administered by a headquarters, 17 local head offices, 101 zonal offices and 208 foreign offices in 36 countries. It is hard to believe that the SBI is not able to gather information which the SBI has itself recorded,” it said.

Mr. Bhushan said the bank had not bothered to inform the court about the progress made so far. Besides, the affidavit supporting the bank’s application for an extension of time had neither been sworn by the Chairman nor the Managing Director of the SBI.

The petition referred to a Right to Information response given by the SBI to retired Commodore Lokesh Batra in 2018, saying it had spent ₹60.43 lakh on IT system development, ₹89.72 lakh on operational costs and the net cost for floating of electoral bonds was ₹1.50 crore.

“This implies that a well-functioning IT system is already in place with respect to management of sale and redemption of electoral bonds,” the petition pointed out.

The RTI information also conveyed that in 30 phases of electoral bonds’ sale, only 19 out of 29 SBI-authorised branches sold electoral bonds and 14 SBI branches encashed them.

“The data available as of January 2024 showed that only 25 political parties had opened their account and were eligible for encashing electoral bonds. Therefore, compiling this information should not be difficult as the system is already in place,” the petition argued.

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