SBI Pulled up for Withholding Electoral Bond Numbers; BJP, Vedanta, Airtel Among Top Donors

SBI Pulled up for Withholding Electoral Bond Numbers; BJP, Vedanta, Airtel Among Top Donors

New Delhi - The Indian Supreme Court has taken a critical stance against the State Bank of India (SBI) for its failure to disclose unique serial numbers associated with banned electoral bonds. This lack of transparency has raised concerns, prompting the court to issue a notice to SBI, demanding clarification by March 18.

Notable corporate entities such as Vedanta Ltd., Bharti Airtel, and Mahindra and Mahindra, alongside individuals like steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, emerged as significant buyers, shedding light on the connections between industry and political financing in India.

During discussions, the Supreme Court highlighted the necessity for full disclosure, referencing previous judgments mandating the release of all electoral bond details, including purchaser names, purchase dates, denominations, and crucially, the alphanumeric numbers linked to each bond.

This scrutiny comes after the apex court's earlier ruling on February 14, which declared the electoral bonds scheme unconstitutional. In response, the court instructed SBI to provide bond details to the Election Commission of India (ECI), with a deadline of March 6. However, SBI's request for an extension until June 30 was rebuffed by the court, emphasizing the need for prompt disclosure.

Despite challenges cited by SBI regarding data collation, including information stored in separate branches, the court reiterated its call for straightforward disclosure rather than intricate matching exercises.

As a result of the court's intervention, SBI eventually released data on March 12, subsequently made public by the EC on March 14. The disclosed information unveiled significant purchasers of electoral bonds, notably including Future Gaming and Hotel Services, a relatively obscure lottery company, as the largest donor, with purchases exceeding Rs 1,350 crore.

According to the data provided, a total of 22,217 electoral bonds were purchased between April 1, 2019, and February 15, 2024, with 22,030 redeemed by various political parties during the same period. Among the known corporates, Vedanta Ltd. made purchases worth Rs 398 crore, while Bharti Airtel's companies collectively bought bonds totaling Rs 246 crore.

Individual purchases also stood out, with steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal acquiring bonds worth Rs 35 crore in his personal capacity. Additionally, Hyderabad-based Megha Engineering, known for securing contracts for major infrastructure projects, purchased bonds worth an impressive Rs 966 crore.

The parties redeeming these electoral bonds represent a wide spectrum of Indian politics, including the BJP, Congress, AIADMK, Shiv Sena, TDP, and others, showcasing the broad reach of the electoral bond system in political funding.

About Electoral Bonds
Electoral bonds were unique financial instruments introduced by the Indian government through amendments to four Acts, primarily via the Finance Acts of 2016 and 2017. These interest-free bearer bonds or money instruments could be obtained by companies and individuals from authorized branches of the State Bank of India (SBI).

Available in denominations ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 1 crore, electoral bonds provided a means for donors to contribute to political parties. They were purchased through KYC-compliant accounts and were designed to be anonymous, allowing donors to remain undisclosed. However, this anonymity stirred controversy, ultimately leading to the scheme's termination.

There were no restrictions on the number of electoral bonds that a person or company could purchase, granting significant flexibility in funding political activities.

Regarding eligibility to receive funding, political parties meeting certain criteria, such as securing a minimum of 1% of the votes in recent Lok Sabha or State Assembly elections and being registered under the Representation of the People Act (RPA), could avail themselves of electoral bond donations. These parties were required to have verified accounts with the Election Commission of India (ECI) to receive bond amounts within 15 days of purchase.

Upon receiving donations, political parties had a 15-day window to encash the bonds, with the funds subsequently deposited into the Prime Minister's Relief Fund. It's noteworthy that electoral bonds were not continuously available for purchase; rather, they were only accessible during specific periods, including 10-day intervals every four months (January, April, July, and October), as well as for 30 days during Lok Sabha election years.

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