The devil is in the fine print -Yogendra Yadav
Electoral reforms announced in the Budget are not what they are claimed to be — they will neither cleanse our politics nor bring transparency
Given his interest in cricket, this must be called Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s ‘doosra’. His announcement on electoral reforms in his Budget speech combined an element of surprise, some degree of deception and a sleight of hand — all that go into a doosra in cricket. It is a mark of his deftness that his delivery foxed many a seasoned player.
Initial reactions to Mr. Jaitley’s announcement ranged from gushing to lukewarm approval. Breathless TV anchors announced it as a historic act of cleansing our polity, just as Mr. Jaitley would have us believe. More sober commentators saw it as a significant though inadequate step forward in the right direction. Even the sceptics felt that the Finance Minister had at least put the issue of political funding on the table. Everyone thought the ball was headed in the right direction. It took a while for democratic reform and right to information activists to find out that this was the wrong one. The fine print of the Finance Bill showed that Mr. Jaitley’s proposals for bringing ‘transparency and accountability’ would achieve exactly the opposite. Ranging from redundant to sinister, these proposals would rob the system of whatever little transparency and accountability that it has today. Worse, they draw national attention away from a series of electoral funding reforms that the Election Commission and democratic reform activists have been asking for a long time.
All the four elements
This might sound like the usual oppositional and alarmist reaction. So, let us carefully unpack each of the four elements of the scheme announced by the Finance Minister to “cleanse the system of funding of political parties”. First, he claimed to follow the Election Commission in proposing a ceiling of Rs. 2,000 on the amount of cash donation that a political party can receive from one person in a year. Second, he announced that political parties would be “entitled to receive” donations by cheque or digital mode from their donors. Third, he proposed a new scheme of Electoral Bonds. Fourth, he said that every political party would have to file its Income Tax return within the prescribed time limit in order to enjoy exemption from payment of income tax. He insisted that this scheme will bring about “greater transparency and accountability in political funding, while preventing future generation of black money”.
Now, the second and the fourth components of this scheme are redundant, as these are no different from what the existing law provides for. It does not require a new law to say that political parties are “entitled” to receive donations by cheque or digitally. They were always entitled to this and were already doing so. We needed a new law to mandate that the parties would be “required” to receive donations by cheque or digitally. The Finance Minister did not propose any such thing. Similarly, the existing law requires political parties to file their income tax returns to enjoy tax exemption. The Finance Bill now proposes a new proviso in Section 13A clause (d) of the Income Tax Act 1961 that explicitly says that the return should be filed within the stipulated time limit. So far, all major parties have routinely flouted this requirement. Big national parties file their return months after the due date and many parties don’t file the return at all. No one gets penalised for this non-compliance. The government really did not need this amendment if it had the will to enforce the existing law.
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