The electoral bonds scheme was introduced by the 2017 Finance Act, challenged before the Supreme Court in 2018, and made headlines in 2019 when the court finally began hearing the matter and passed an interim order. Briefly, the scheme allows individuals and companies to purchase “electoral bonds” issued by the State Bank of India and subsequently donate the bonds to a political party. Under the scheme, only a political party registered under the Representation of People’s Act 1951 (RPA) is eligible to receive and encash electoral bonds. Electoral bonds are therefore bespoke campaign finance instruments to allow donors, or ‘contributors’, to contribute to political parties. The bonds are issued in denominations ranging from one thousand rupees up to one crore.
Crucially, through several legislative changes (discussed below), political parties do not have to disclose to voters either the identity of the contributor, or the amount received through electoral bonds. The electoral bonds scheme itself provides that,
“the information furnished by the buyer shall be treated [as] confidential by the authorised bank and shall not be disclosed to any authority for any purposes, except when demanded by a competent court or upon registration of criminal case by any law enforcement agency.”
One of the grounds on which the scheme has been challenged is that citizens have a right to know the identity of the contributors and the amounts being contributed to each party. In its interim order, the Supreme Court required all political parties to submit to the court (in a sealed cover) the details of money received under the electoral bonds scheme.
On this blog we discussed the concerns raised by the Supreme Court’s interim order (here). In this post I argue that the electoral bonds are part of a more comprehensive legislative agenda which increases the overall volume of campaign contributions and decreases the information voters have about these contributions. I then examine whether the electoral bonds scheme is constitutional in light of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on a citizen’s “right to know” under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Exploring the rationale behind a voter’s “right to know”, I argue that disclosing campaign contributions is necessary because it allows voters to better understand a candidate or party’s position on important issues and evaluate whether a candidate (and eventually, elected official) is “too compliant” with the wishes of their contributors.
Recent changes in campaign finance law
The current government has made several changes to campaign finance laws in the last two years. Firstly, the government removed the cap on corporate donations contained in Section 182 of the Companies Act 2013 under which a company could not contribute more than 7.5% of its net profits for the previous three years. The amendment also removed the requirement that companies disclose the total amount contributed and identity of the political party that the company contributed to. There is now no cap on how much money a company can contribute to a political party. Further, by removing the requirement that the political contributions must come from profits, there is a risk that donors set up shell companies that do not actually conduct any legitimate business but exist solely to funnel money to political parties.
The government also amended the Foreign Contributions Registration Act (FCRA). Under the FCRA as it stood before the amendment, companies that were more than 50% foreign owned were prohibited from donating (or “contributing”) to political parties. The amendments removed this 50% threshold, permitting companies that are 100% foreign owned to contribute to political parties.
Circling back to the electoral bonds scheme, prior to the amendments by the government, political parties were required to report all contributions over twenty thousand rupees (under Section 29C of the RPA) and keep a record of the name and address of all such contributors (under Section 13A of the Income Tax Act). Under the government’s amendments, both these reporting requirements were removed in the case of contributions made through electoral bonds.
Thus, it is important to recognise that electoral bonds are part of a sustained and comprehensive legislative agenda that is likely to see a significant increase in campaign contributions to Indian political parties and a significant decrease of information about these contributions to voters. As I argue below, both these outcomes have consequences on the functioning of democracy under the Constitution.
Some Context on Campaign Finance
Campaign finance is a vast and nuanced area of law and political theory, and the intention here is merely to touch on a few simple points to provide context to the legislative changes introduced by the government. Firstly, a core tenet of democracy is that citizens collectively choose a representative government. Only a government chosen by the citizens is legitimate. Therefore, the process by which citizens choose their representatives (elections) is of paramount important. If elections do not provide citizens with a free and fair method of selecting a candidate of their choice, then the elected government cannot be said to be chosen by the people, and would be illegitimate.
Elections in all countries cost money. However, methods of financing elections vary greatly, from systems of publicly funded elections, to systems of unlimited private contributions. India is somewhere in the middle, private contributions are permitted, but spending by political candidates is capped. In a system where public money is used to finance elections, voters have no interest in knowing how candidates are financed, because all candidates are using public money. However, as we move towards private contributions, and unrestricted private contributions, things get a bit trickier. Where private contributions are permitted, who is funding a candidate becomes an essential part of the candidate’s platform, because contributors will donate to candidates who support their ideas, and candidates may even modify their ideas to secure funding. Thus, a candidate’s stance on issues and who is funding them becomes intricately linked. Thus, in an electoral system where candidates are privately funded (and as I argue in detail below) voters do have an interest in knowing who is funding a candidate.
Lastly, it is important to separate campaign contributions from corruption. Corruption, simply, is when a candidate (as a potential elected official) uses their position to enrich themselves personally. Campaign contributions do not enrich the candidates personally, but rather are used by candidates to acquire more votes. (It is possible that some candidates use contributions to enrich themselves, but that is a separate debate.)
The real problem that that campaign contributions can raise is a “quid-pro-quo” deal. Where a candidate takes money from a contributor, and once elected, votes in favour of laws that benefit the contributor. This concern is articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Nixon v Shrink Missouri Government PAC, where the court noted that the concern raised by political contributions is a concern “not confined to bribery of public officials, but extending to the broader threat from politicians [being] too compliant with the wishes of large contributors.” But when is a politician “too compliant”? Is it merely when she votes against the interests of the majority of her constituents? Arguably, in a democracy, it is desirable that voters signal to candidates what their preferences are, both through votes, as well as political contributions. Subsequently, when an elected legislator votes in line with these preferences, they are merely being responsive to the needs of their constituents. Say for example, a rich religious minority that has been historically persecuted contributes large amounts to a candidate, who subsequently votes for a law which prevents future persecution of that minority, can we say that such a candidate is “too compliant”? It is highly likely that such a candidate would have voted the same way irrespective of the contributions. As I argue below, disclosures help with this as well.
One problem that increased contributions can result in is the translation of economic inequality to political inequality. If elected officials respond to issues that have received the greatest support from their constituents in the form of the maximum contributions, the legislative agenda may represent the interests of the largest contributors, and not all individuals in their constituency. This may drown out the political demands of economically weaker sections of society. However, this is a risk inherent in all systems that allow private political contributions and is unlikely to disappear until we either have publicly funded elections or the wider economic inequalities in society are tackled.
Article 19 and the “Right to Know”
The most recent hearings on electoral bonds centred around whether the Constitution grants voters the “right to know” who contributed to which political parties, and how much they contributed. Article 19(1) of the Constitution grants all citizen’s a right to free speech. The Article also grants citizens the right to receive information from a person who is willing to speak and share their speech. However, typical conceptions of the freedom of speech do not grant a citizen a right to receive information from an unwilling speaker. In other words, the freedom of speech typically provides a negative right against interference from receiving ‘generally available’ information, but not a positive right to gather or acquire information.
To take an example, the freedom of speech grants a journalist the right to publish an article about a failed military operation by the government. The freedom of speech also protects a citizen’s right to receive the article from the journalist. If the government were to ban the journalist’s article on its failed military operation, this would violate not just the journalist’s freedom of speech but also the citizen’s right to receive information that the journalist wishes to share. However, the freedom of speech does not typically grant the citizen a right to demand details of the failed military operation from the government itself. This would require a separate positive right to acquire information (e.g. as provided by the Right to Information Act 2005).
However, the Indian Supreme Court has expressly recognised that Article 19(1) of the Constitution confers on citizens a positive right to know information about electoral candidates. The Supreme Court has been fairly categorical about this position, noting in its Union of India v Association of Democratic Reforms decision (Union v ADR) that, “There is no reason to that freedom of speech and expression would not cover a right to get material information with regard to a candidate who is contesting elections for a post which is of utmost importance in the country.”
One of the key roles of freedom of speech in a democracy is to ensure public discourse so that all voices and ideas are heard at the time of collective decision making. By including a positive right to know about electoral candidates, the court has stated that for the effective functioning of democracy under the Constitution, it is not enough that the voice of all candidates are heard. Rather, what is required is that voters receive a minimum standard of information that allows them to make an informed decision, even if the candidates would otherwise be unwilling to provide this information. This is perhaps best articulated in Romesh Thappar v State of Madras where the Supreme Court noted, “The public interest in freedom of discussion stems from the requirement that members of democratic society should be sufficiently informed that they may influence intelligently the decisions which may affect themselves.”
In later decisions, the Supreme Court has been far more explicit about the fact that voters must not merely be provided access to the ideas a candidate wishes to portray, but also other objective information that will ensure that the voter makes an sufficiently informed decision. For example, in Union v ADR the court noted that, “Casting of a vote by a misinformed and non-informed voter or a voter having one-sided information only is bound to affect democracy seriously.” What the court is articulating is that standard to be applied to the functioning of democracy under the Constitution, and the standard is not satisfied merely by ensuring that all candidates can freely speak and disseminate their ideas. It requires, at a bare minimum, that voters be sufficiently apprised of their electoral candidates to the point where they can make an informed decision about which candidate is likely to best represent their interests in government. To ensure this, Article 19(1) grants voters a positive right to acquire information about candidates, even if the candidates are unwilling to provide this information.
In Union v ADR ruled that electoral candidates must disclose their assets, educational qualifications, and their involvement in criminal cases for voters to be make an informed decision. This sets a high threshold for the standard of information a voter must possess before voting, leaving the government hard-pressed to argue that voters do not need to know the identity and amounts of political donations received by candidates and parties. As I argue below, the identity of a candidate’s contributors is crucial in allowing voters to make an informed decision.
Disclosures in a Democracy
Recall that the electoral bonds scheme and the surrounding legislative amendments have two primary consequences, (1) they increase the total volume of political contributions, and (2) make it neigh impossible for voters to discern the identity and volume of donations made to candidates. The most obvious function of disclosures is that where the conduct of a legislator blatantly panders to a political contributor without any public utility, disclosures bring to light such behaviour. As the Supreme Court noted in People’s Union of Civil Liberties v Union of India, “There can be little doubt that exposure to the public gaze and scrutiny is one of the surest means to cleanse our democratic governing system and to have competent legislatures.”
However, beyond this, disclosures allow voters themselves to decide when an elected official is being “too compliant” with the wishes of their contributors. As noted above, it is often difficult to determine when an elected official is “too compliant” with the wishes of their contributors. It is likely that individuals will disagree over when an elected official’s action is “too compliant”. However, when contributions are disclosed, each voter can decide for herself when an official’s behaviour is “too compliant” with the interests of their respective contributors and punish the legislator by not voting for them in the next election. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted when examining the constitutionality of campaign finance disclosures in the landmark decision of Buckley v Valeo (Buckley), disclosures “provide the electorate with information as to where political campaign money comes from and how it is spent by the candidate in order to aid the voters in evaluating those who seek federal office.” Knowing whether an official is likely to represent, or only represent, the wishes of their political contributors is crucial information for an individual voter in deciding whether the official will represent that individual voter’s interest in government.
Lastly, as noted by Elizaabeth Garrett, campaign contribution disclosures allow voters to understanding where a candidate stands on key issues. For example, a voter may not have the time or expertise to discern whether a candidate is in favour of the coal industry based on a candidate’s manifesto or draft legislation. However, when the voter learns that the candidate receives most of her campaign contributions from the coal industry, the voter may understand that the candidate is in favour of the coal industry. This is because the interest groups closest to the issue (the coal industry) would only have contributed to the candidate’s campaign because they believe that the candidate will support legislation beneficial to the coal industry. Because contributing to a campaign is “an observable and costly effort on the part of the contributor”, knowing who contributed to a campaign allow voters to discern a candidate’s likely position on issues. (Garrett also cites empirical studies where voters informed of whom contributed to a candidate were able to vote on-par with candidates who had actively researched candidates – her paper on disclosures and voter competence can be found here.)
Recall that the Supreme Court has already stated that for voters to effectively exercise their role as voters under the Constitution, they must be provided with certain basic information. A key question in case of electoral bonds scheme is whether the identity of the contributor and the quantum of the contributions received by the candidates is part of this essential information a voter should receive to be sufficiently informed. By denying voters this information, the electoral bonds scheme makes it impossible for voters to understand when their elected politicians are acting in favour of large political contributors – even the politicians may be blatantly doing so. Further, electoral bonds allow politicians to hide their position on certain issues by receiving funding from interest groups anonymously. A voter might be inclined to vote for a candidate based on their publicly available information such as a candidate’s speeches or track record. However, that same voter may hesitate if they discovered that the candidate received large amounts from interest groups promoting religious persecution, or tax cuts for large business.
The Government’s Arguments
In defending the electoral bonds scheme, the government has argued that electoral bonds reduce the amount of ‘black’ (i.e. illicitly obtained) money in elections, as contributions are routed through the State Bank of India which performs ‘Know-Your-Customer’ checks on contributors. This does not eliminate the risk that a contributor will merely funnel ‘black’ money through a legitimate or ‘clean’ company or individual, especially as neither companies nor political parties are required to keep a record of large donors any more. In short, the electoral bonds scheme does nothing to ensure that the origin of the money contributed is legitimate.
Another argument that may be used to defend the electoral bonds scheme is one of contributor privacy. As discussed earlier on this blog (here), individuals have a right to the privacy in their associations, and this would include a contributor seeking to donate to a candidate. Take the example of a candidate who speaks out in favour of a religious minority. If the state were to publish the names of all the people who contributed to this outspoken candidate, these contributors might be dissuaded from contributing to the outspoken candidate. Worse, the contributors may face persecution precisely for contributing to the outspoken candidate (something they have a constitutionally protected right to do). Thus, by not protecting the privacy of their (political) associations, the state would be violating their right to participate in the electoral process.
This is certainly a concern and arguably, where contributors are at risk, a balance must be struck. Garrett notes that in Buckley, as well as in Brown v Socialist Workers, the U.S. Supreme Court exempted campaigns from making disclosures where there existed “specific evidence of hostility, threats, harassment and reprisals.” This is a balanced solution. In the general, where there are no risks to contributors, the voters right to know requires candidates to disclose their contributors and contributions. In specific instances, where a credible risk exists that compelling disclosures will dissuade or put at risk contributors, their privacy must be maintained. Electoral bonds however, exempt disclosures in all situations. Thus, unless the government is able to reverse this – generally requiring disclosures, and creating a nuanced system as to when parties can be keep the source of contributions anonymous, the electoral bonds scheme violates the voters right to know.
To provide some context to the scale of the problem, information procured under the Right to Information Act from the State Bank of India noted (here) that over six hundred crores worth of electoral bonds were purchased between March and October of 2018. The Supreme Court’s interim order in the electoral bonds case is troubling. By refusing strike down the electoral bonds scheme and compel parties to disclose to the citizens of the country who is financing them, the court has taken a step back from its previously strong jurisprudence on a voter’s right to know. Striking down these amendments would have sent a strong signal that any amendments to campaign finance laws must respect that democracy under the constitution requires an informed and empowered voter. As noted above, who is funding a candidate is vital information that allows a voter to understand where a candidate stands on key issues. That the court refused to do this during an ongoing general election, when this information is most relevant to voters, makes the court’s current stance particularly egregious.