SC to hear if pleas challenging electoral bond scheme can be referred to constitution bench
The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it will consider whether the pleas challenging the validity of the electoral bond scheme for political funding of parties can be referred to a constitutional bench for an “authoritative pronouncement”.
The top court’s observations to decide whether the pleas can be referred to a constitution bench assume significance in the wake of the claim of an NGO, a PIL petitioner on the issue, that so far Rs 12,000 crore has been paid to political parties through electoral bond and the two-third of the amount has gone to one major political party and hence, the matter needed to be decided expeditiously prior to the upcoming Karnataka assembly polls.
“We will see whether the petitions can be referred to a constitution bench on April 11,” said the bench comprising Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud and Justice P S Narasimha. Lawyer Shadan Farasat, appearing for one of the PIL petitioners, said that the pleas be referred to a constitution bench due to the impact of the electoral bond scheme on the democratic polity and funding of political parties.
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Farasat said the issue needed an “authoritative pronouncement” by a larger bench. Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for NGO Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), also supported the submission with regard to referring the batch of PILs to a constitution bench.
Dave said the matter be taken up for in April itself prior to the upcoming Karnataka assembly polls. The bench, meanwhile, appointed two lawyers including Neha Rathi as nodal counsel for ensuring smooth hearing of the PILs, saying they would coordinate to ensure that common compilation of judgements and other records are filed.
The hearing on as many as four PILs, including the one filed by challenging the electoral bond scheme, was deferred to April 11 in view of a prior letter circulated by the Centre seeking adjournment on the ground that Solicitor General Tushar Mehta was unavailable.
Earlier, the top court on January 31 had said the three sets of petitions on the electoral bonds scheme, bringing political parties within the ambit of the Right to Information Act and those challenging amendments in the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act will be heard separately.
The court had said it will hear in the third week of March the pleas challenging the laws permitting funding of political parties through the electoral bond scheme. Prior to this, the top court had said it will hear in the last week of January, a batch of PILs challenging laws permitting funding of political parties through the electoral bond scheme.
Electoral bonds have been pitched as an alternative to cash donations made to political parties as part of efforts to bring in transparency in political funding. Lawyer Bhushan had sought urgent listing of the PIL by the apex court and seeking a direction to the Centre not to open any further window for the sale of electoral bonds during the pendency of a case pertaining to funding of political parties and alleged lack of transparency in their bank accounts.
The NGO, which had filed the PIL on the issue of alleged corruption and subversion of democracy through illicit and foreign funding of political parties and lack of transparency in the bank accounts of all political parties, had moved an interim application in March 2021 before the assembly polls in West Bengal and Assam seeking the sale of electoral bonds should not be reopened.
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On January 20, 2020, the apex court had refused to grant interim stay on the 2018 Electoral Bonds Scheme and sought responses of the Centre and the Election Commission to an interim application by the NGO seeking a stay on the scheme.
The government notified the Electoral Bond Scheme on January 2, 2018. According to the provisions of the scheme, electoral bonds may be purchased by a person who is a citizen of India or incorporated or established in India.
An individual can buy electoral bonds, either singly or jointly with other individuals. Only political parties registered under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and which secured not less than one per cent of votes polled in the last general election to Lok Sabha or the Legislative Assembly of the state are eligible to receive electoral bonds.
According to the notification, electoral bonds shall be encashed by an eligible political party only through an account with an authorised bank. The apex court had in April 2019 also declined to stay the Electoral Bond Scheme and made it clear that it will accord an in-depth hearing on the pleas as the Centre and the EC have raised “weighty issues” having “tremendous bearing on the sanctity of the electoral process in the country”.
The Centre and the EC had earlier taken contrary stands in the court over political funding, with the government wanting to maintain anonymity of the donors and the poll panel batting for revealing their names for the sake of transparency.
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