India’s supreme court rejects deadline extension plea on disclosing political party donations

Ruling viewed as ‘major setback’ for prime minister Narendra Modi’s government, the largest beneficiary of bonds scheme

India’s supreme court has rejected a plea by the country’s largest state-run bank to extend the deadline for disclosing details of prime minister Narendra Modi government’s seven-year old controversial scheme that permits individuals and corporations to make anonymous donations to political parties.

The five-judge bench unanimously ordered the State Bank of India (SBI) to provide particulars of the electoral bond scheme to the election commission of India by Tuesday evening. It further directed the commission to make public these details on its website, “no later than 5pm, on 15 March”.

This directive, in response to the SBI’s petition seeking an extension, till June 30th, to disclose details of these bonds, followed the court’s earlier ruling that the entire political funding scheme introduced in between 2017 and 2018 was “unconstitutional”.

In its February 15th ruling, the court had ordered the SBI to provide specifics of these bonds redeemed by each political party, to the election commission by March 6th which, in turn, was required to display them on its website a week later.


But just two days before this time limit expired, the SBI moved the court stating that collating all bond-related data was a “time consuming process” and could not be completed until the end of June, by which time the upcoming general elections would long have been completed.

Rejecting its plea on Monday, the court stated that it was putting the SBI “on notice” and warned it against “wilfully disobeying” its stipulated timeline on sharing information on the bonds scheme by “close of business” on Tuesday.

The ruling comes days before the announcement of the schedule for general elections – which needs to be completed by the end of May – and is viewed by political commentators as a “major setback” for Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, which has been the largest beneficiary of the bonds scheme.

According to the independent Association for Democratic Rights (ADR) election watchdog, the SBI had so far issued electoral bonds worth 165.18 billion rupees (€1.82 billion) to individuals and companies, around 53 per cent of which the BJP had been received, or an amount equalling over 87.54 billion rupees (€968 million). The ADR was one of the petitioners seeking Bond details from the SBI.

The BJP had launched the bond scheme with the ostensible aim of rendering political funding more transparent, as all previous Indian elections were cash-dominated.

It stipulated that these bonds could be bought only from the SBI by individuals, groups of people or companies and donated to the political party of their choice and cashed after 15 days. Secrecy, above all, surrounding these transactions was guaranteed by the government.

Furthermore, the BJP government scrapped several existing statues concerning political funding on grounds of augmenting transparency. These included scrapping a law that capped corporate donations to political parties and formally allowing all contributors to not disclose these payments in their annual financial reports.

Overseas concerns, hitherto barred from funding Indian political parties, were now permitted to do so under the Bond scheme through their Indian subsidiaries. Critics also claimed that since the SBI was state-owned, the ruling party had access to its data which they asserted would be a deterrent for donors funding Opposition parties via Bonds.

However, the Indian government retained the earlier mandatory requirement for all political parties to reveal the identity of their benefactors who donated over 20,000 rupees (€221) to them, in cash.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, welcomed the court’s decision, terming it a step towards “preserving democracy”.

Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi declared on X (formerly Twitter) that once disclosed, details of the Electoral Bonds, would prove to be the “biggest scam in Indian history”. It would also exposé the ‘nexus of corrupt industrialists and the government”, he stated in Hindi.

Congress Party head Malikarjun Kharge said on X that the Court’s decision was a victory for transparency and accountability and had created a level playing field for democracy.

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New Delhi