Names and bonds: On electoral bonds scheme, the Supreme Court, and the State Bank of India

The Court did well to thwart SBI’s attempt to delay details of electoral bonds

March 12, 2024 12:30 am | Updated 10:40 am IST

The Supreme Court’s refusal to grant any further time to the State Bank of India (SBI) to furnish details of those who purchased and parties that encashed electoral bonds since April 2019 has foiled an ill-advised attempt to seek postponement of the disclosure until after the general election. The SBI has now been asked to disclose to the Election Commission of India (ECI), by the end of March 12, the names of details of the purchasers of the bonds, the dates on which these were bought, and denominations. The bank should also disclose the names of parties that redeemed the bonds, along with dates and denominations. The ECI has to host the information on its website by March 15. The upshot of the bank’s application for time until June 30 is that it is now quite clear that it must disclose the data available to it, and need not try and match the names of the donors with the parties. It appears that the initial directions of the Constitution Bench, as part of its February 15 judgment invalidating the electoral bonds scheme, had been construed to mean that the SBI was required to match with exactitude all the purchasers with the recipients. The bank deemed this a “time-consuming” exercise, as the details were in separate silos and not stored in digital format.

In rejecting the bank’s application for time and keeping the threat of contempt action alive, the Court has sent a message that it will not brook any further delay. The Bench has also rightly questioned the bank’s silence on what had been done to comply with the order until the filing of an application for extension of time, just two days before the March 6 deadline. It is now quite apparent that even manually matching the two datasets could not have taken as long as the four months the SBI wanted. A question may arise as to whether the voters’ right to information, the very basis for the Court finding the anonymous donation scheme unconstitutional, will be fulfilled by mere disclosure of the names of bond purchasers and the parties that received the funds, without authentic data on who donated what amount to which party. Given that the bonds have to be redeemed within a 15-day window, it may still be possible for a diligent civil society to use the disclosures to match donors and parties based on the proximity between dates of purchase and redemption. The data may also help unravel whether corporate houses or individuals benefited from their donations to ruling parties at the Centre and in the States, or if the contributions were made in response to any threat of investigation and prosecution.

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