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With the hearings in the Supreme Court on the electoral bonds challenge having concluded, it is a good time to discuss how important the outcome of this challenge will be to democracy and rule of law in India. Political parties in any country play an indispensable role in the democratic process. They form the government and have the responsibility under our constitution of holding the government to account. It is thus essential that the parties are adequately funded in a manner which enjoys public confidence.
The amendments made to the Representation of the People Act 1951 and other laws which provide for electoral bonds, provide complete anonymity to political donors. The requirement all over the world on this issue on the other hand has been the diametrical opposite — requirement of full disclosure on donations to political parties, either by individuals or corporations.
Regulating political funding
As far back in 1910, the United States of America enacted the Publicity Act, which not only made all funding of political parties and candidates to be disclosed, it also imposed limits on political contributions. There were also other laws which regulated these limits, and imposed limits on campaign spending. These conditions were challenged and the U.S. Supreme Court in Buckley versus Valeo in 1976, not only upheld the public disclosure requirements of funding of political parties, but also upheld the limits on contributions to be received, as being constitutional. It held that to the extent that large contributions are given to secure a political quid pro quo from current and potential office holders, the integrity of the system of representative democracy is undermined. The danger, is not of actual quid pro quo arrangements but of the appearance of corruption and the opportunities for abuse inherent with large financial contributions, even when the identities of the contributors and their contributions are fully disclosed. The mere impression of misuse may be sufficient to erode confidence in the political system and democracy.
In 2014, the European Union enacted a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the funding of European political parties and European political foundations. Under this Regulation, there were limits set on the value of donations that parties and foundations may accept per year and per donor. While donations from natural persons under a certain value can be anonymised, all donations exceeding that value have to be disclosed. Large donations above a certain value require not just disclosure but immediate reporting to the authority. Further, political parties are also required to file annual financial statements of their revenue and expenditure, their list of donors and corresponding donations.