In the public mind, political corruption is the source of most forms of corruption. No doubt, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was seeking to address this concern about the lack of transparency and accountability in the funding of political parties when he announced measures in the Union Budget to cleanse the process of making donations toward election expenses of parties. But his proposals are doomed to fail, not because they do not go far enough but because they go in the wrong direction. The ceiling of ₹2,000 on cash donation by any individual to a party, slashed from the existing ₹20,000, might inconvenience parties to some extent but is unlikely to stop the disguising of huge, off-the-books cash donations from corporate houses and vested interests as small contributions from ordinary party workers and sympathisers. All that the parties will now have to do is find more people to lend their names to these donations, or better still, find more names of unsuspecting people to be listed as cash donors. The proposal does not disrupt the flow of illicit political donations but only channels it differently, and will not reduce the proportion of cash from unverifiable sources in the total donations received. If Mr. Jaitley was indeed intent on getting the political class to truly account for their donations, he should have placed a cap on the amount a party may receive in cash as a donation. In any case, the declared income is only a small part of their funding, much of which is spent during elections and mobilisation efforts without coming under the radar of the Election Commission or the Income Tax Department.
The proposal to allow donors to purchase electoral bonds from banks against cheque and digital payments to be given to registered political parties for redemption, meant to cater to donors’ need to remain anonymous to rival political parties, hardly contributes to transparency. Indeed, donors should not enjoy any anonymity, before tax authorities or the general public. The absence of such anonymity, of course, will bring down the level of contributions from corporate houses and other entities to parties, not such a bad thing. Far from aiding transparency, the proposal only clouds the funding process. The Budget makes it mandatory for political parties to file returns within a time limit, but in the absence of extreme penal provisions compliance is likely to be low. Mr. Jaitley, while raising visions of a crackdown on illicit funding, seems to have left the issue untouched in real terms. Half-measures will not go even halfway in achieving the purpose of bringing about transparency and accountability in political donations.