The Supreme Court has taken a baby step forward in bringing transparency to India's sordidly opaque system of political funding by asking political parties to provide the Election Commission with details of the funds received as electoral bonds and their donors. However, this interim order on a petition challenging the validity of electoral bonds falls short on multiple counts. For one, it undoes a design for anonymous political contribution enacted by the legislature without first finding the scheme to be ultra vires of the Constitution. For another, it falls short of appreciating the enormity of under-declaration of actual receipts and expenditure by political parties, and instead, focuses attention on that farcically small fraction of the income that is accounted for.
The reality is that political parties in India spend tens of thousands of crore rupees on running their organizations and electoral campaigns. Staff expenditure, costs of surveys and maintaining cyber units to infuse social media with the right messaging, the expenditure on mass rallies, political leaders travel by chartered planes for months on end, publicity material, advertisements, posters, motorcades, public address systems hired by the thousands, flags and bunting, food for volunteers-politics calls for lots of money. But a few hundred crore is what political parties choose to acknowledge as their collection and expenditure. If a part of that declared collection is by way of electoral bonds, focusing on their opacity only serves to divert attention away from the huge gap between actual expenditure and declared income.
The Election Commission ought to deploy modern techniques of big-data analytics, capturing structured as well as unstructured data on political campaigns on the ground to estimate actual expenditure. Each party should declare its expenses every month at every locality, and that amount should be subjected to challenge by other parties, the media and watchdog bodies. The commission should moderate the contest, arrive at a reasoned figure for expenditure, and ask each party to show their source of income to finance that expenditure.
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