The Supreme Court on Tuesday said petitions on the electoral bonds scheme, bringing political parties within the ambit of the Right to Information Act and those challenging amendments in the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, would be heard separately.
A Bench comprising Chief Justice of India D. Y. Chandrachud and Justice P. S. Narasimha said the petitions raised three separate issues and hence, there was a need to hear them separately.
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One set of petitions challenged the laws permitting the funding of political parties through the electoral bond scheme, while the second set sought to bring parties under the purview of the transparency law, the Right to Information Act.
The third set of PILs challenged the amendment made by the Central government into the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010 through the Finance Act of 2016 and 2018. The amended FCRA purportedly permitted political parties to receive foreign donations.
"The petitions in the present batch are bifurcated with reference to the above three challenges. The three sets of the petitions need to be heard separately," the Bench said in its order.
The Bench also asked the Centre to file its responses to some petitions including the old ones.
It said the petitions challenging the electoral bond scheme would be heard in the third week of March, while the pleas seeking to bring political parties under the RTI, in the first week of April.
"The third batch concerning the FCRA Amendments will be heard in mid-April," the CJI said.
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As many as seven petitions including the one filed by the NGO 'Association for Democratic Reforms' were listed on Tuesday for hearing.
Earlier, the top court had said it would hear in the last week of January 2023, a batch of PILs challenging laws that permitted the funding of political parties through the electoral bond scheme.
Alternative to cash donations
Electoral bonds have been pitched as an alternative to cash donations made to political parties as part of the efforts to bring in transparency in political funding.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, appearing for PIL petitioner NGO 'Association for Democratic Reforms', had said there were several constitutional questions involved in the petitions which had a bearing on the sanctity of the electoral process.
He had said the issue of whether it should be referred to a Constitution Bench could be looked at first.
Prior to this, Mr. Bhushan had sought the urgent listing of the PIL by the apex court and sought a direction from the Centre not to open any further window for the sale of electoral bonds during the pendency of a case pertaining to the funding of political parties, and alleged lack of transparency in their bank accounts.
The NGO, which had filed the PIL on the issue of alleged corruption and subversion of democracy through illicit and foreign funding of political parties and lack of transparency in the bank accounts of all political parties, had moved an interim application in March 2021 before the Assembly polls in West Bengal and Assam seeking the sale of electoral bonds should not be reopened.
On January 20, 2020, the apex court had refused to grant interim stay on the 2018 Electoral Bonds Scheme and sought responses of the Centre and the Election Commission to an interim application by the NGO seeking a stay on the scheme.
The government notified the Electoral Bond Scheme on January 2, 2018.
According to the provisions of the scheme, electoral bonds may be purchased by a person who was a citizen of India or incorporated or established in India. An individual could buy electoral bonds, either singly or jointly with other individuals.
Only political parties registered under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and which secured not less than 1% of votes polled in the last general election to Lok Sabha or the Legislative Assembly of the State, were eligible to receive electoral bonds.
According to the notification, electoral bonds would be encashed by an eligible political party only through an account with an authorised bank.
The apex court had in April 2019 also declined to stay the Electoral Bond Scheme and made it clear that it would accord an in-depth hearing on the pleas as the Centre and the EC had raised "weighty issues" having "tremendous bearing on the sanctity of the electoral process in the country".
The Centre and the EC had earlier taken contrary stands in the court over political funding, with the government wanting to maintain anonymity of the donors and the poll panel batting for revealing their names, for the sake of transparency.