India’s top court orders SBI to disclose electoral bonds details by Tuesday

Court rejects the state-run bank’s plea to publish details of previously anonymous political donations by June, citing the upcoming national polls.

India’s Supreme Court has rejected a plea by the government-run State Bank of India (SBI) for more time to share details of individuals and companies who bought its controversial electoral bonds to fund political parties.

The top court on Monday said the information it sought is readily available with the bank, asking to share it with the Election Commission of India (ECI) “by close of business” on Tuesday.

The ECI should compile the information and publish the details on its website no later than 5pm (11:30 GMT) on March 12, the five-judge bench ordered, days before the dates of the general election, due by May, are expected to be announced.

“We place SBI on notice that we might be inclined to proceed on willful disobedience of court order if it does not comply with the timeline given today,” the court said.

The election funding system, called electoral bonds, was introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2017. It allowed individuals and companies to make unlimited and anonymous donations to political parties through certificates bought from the SBI.

The Supreme Court on February 15 scrapped the system, calling it “unconstitutional” and saying it “infringes upon the right of information of the voter” – a setback for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been the largest beneficiary of the bonds.

The court ruled that the SBI must submit details of each bond – including who bought it – since April 2019 to the ECI, which must publish those details on its website by March 13.

The SBI had requested an extension on publishing the bond details until June 30 – by which time the general election would have been completed.

Critics had condemned the election funding system as an opaque way to funnel “black money” to parties, but supporters said it provided better regulation than cash donations, which are still legal. Critics also feared it gave the government the power to access donor details through the state-owned SBI.

The seven-year-old electoral bonds system was challenged by members of the opposition and a civil society group on the grounds that it hindered the public’s right to know who had given money to political parties.

The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a nongovernmental organisation that analysed the secret donations made to various political parties between 2018 and March 2022, found that 57 percent of them (about $600m) went to the BJP.

ADR, which was a petitioner challenging the election funding system in the Supreme Court, also found that individuals and companies bought 165.18bn rupees ($2bn) of the bonds in total up to November 2023.


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