Dubious response: On the State Bank of India and the Electoral Bond scheme

The SBI’s reasons to delay publication of details of electoral bonds defy belief

March 09, 2024 12:20 am | Updated 02:08 pm IST

It has barely been three weeks since a five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court of India unanimously struck down the Electoral Bond scheme as unconstitutional for violating the right to information under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. The scheme, which was notified in 2018, facilitated anonymous political donations. The judgment also stipulated that the State Bank of India (SBI), the sole bank authorised to issue electoral bonds, had to immediately stop issuing them. It also had to furnish, by March 6, details of the political parties that were recipients besides the purchase details which included the date of purchase and the denomination. The intent in asking the SBI to do so was clear — to ensure transparency in political funding at a time when the general election is due. In its response, the SBI, through one of its functionaries, has sought time till the end of June 2024, which would be well after the expected date of the general election, to release data. The bank’s response is curious and difficult to accept. First, it said that it required time to reconcile two silos of information — one related to the purchase of the bonds and the other to the parties that were issued the bonds — and that it was difficult to pinpoint which political party was issued bonds by the relevant donor. This clearly was not the requirement from the top court, which has merely directed the bank to release purchase and issuing information and not to pinpoint the link between donor and recipient.

Second, the response suggests that only the number of bonds issued, and not the KYC details of the purchasers, has been stored digitally, complicating the process of collecting this information. But reports based on RTI queries have found that the bank was indeed storing data on the donors who were purchasing electoral bonds and their dates of purchase. Reports also indicate that the bank issued a unique alphanumeric code to each bond, which should make it relatively easy to gather details on the bonds’ issue date and the denomination quickly through database queries. While matching each donor to a party will be tricky, it should be possible to triangulate data on recipient parties and the issuing of bonds as these bonds have to be redeemed by political parties within 15 days. Information that is available in public till March 2023 shows that the Bharatiya Janata Party received 57% of all the money donated through bonds, followed by the Congress, which received close to 10%. In the hearing of the contempt petition filed against the SBI for its response, the Court must compel the bank to get its act together and furnish the information well in time before the election.

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