Electoral Bonds Disclosure: How SC Tore Into SBI’s Arguments Seeking More Time

The five-judge constitution bench held that all information was readily available with the SBI

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SBI Photo: Getty Images

The Supreme Court of India (SCI) on Monday dismissed the State Bank of India (SBI)’s application seeking an extension of time till June 30 for the disclosure of electoral bond details and ordered the country’s top bank to comply with the order by the end of working hours on Tuesday. 

The SBI is to submit all information to the Election Commission of India (ECI) by March 12 and the ECI is to make them public through their website by March 15, ordered the five-judge Constitutional bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud. 

The order came following intense arguments during which the court tore into the SBI’s arguments behind seeking more time. 

The SBI was originally to submit all details related to the purchase and encashing of electoral bonds – an anonymous political funding scheme that the apex court dubbed illegal in a February order – to the ECI by March 6 and the ECI was supposed to make them public by March 13. 

However, the SBI placed an application on March 4, seeking an extension till June 30, arguing that two massive sets of hard copies of the information required to be collated, which is a time-consuming exercise.

Major political parties, including the Congress, criticised the move as an attempt by the public sector bank – which is under the control of the finance ministry – to ensure that the public did not get to know which party got funding from whom until the parliamentary elections were over. The Lok Sabha elections are expected to be held in April-May. 

Besides, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the CPI(M), two of the original litigants against the scheme, moved contempt of court petitions against the SBI. 

On Monday, the apex court tore into the SBI’s arguments. According to legal reporting websites Live Law and Bar & Bench, CJI Chandrachud told SBI’s lawyer Harish Salve that the apex court had not asked the SBI to connect donations with recipients. 

“If you see the direction we have issued, we have not told you to do the matching exercise. We have directed a plain disclosure,” Live Law quoted the CJI as saying. 

Other members of the bench are Justices Sanjiv Khanna, B.R. Gavai, J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra.

According to social media updates by legal reporting websites, when Justice Gavai told Salve that the court had not asked them to correlate bonds with the purchaser and the political party, the SBI lawyer said that the paragraph concerned in the court order suggested so. Gavai replied, “Don't go by what is suggested, go by what is stated.”

While the CJI pointed out that the bank is supposed to have Know Your Customer (KYC) documents of all donors, Justice Khanna told Salve, “You say all purchaser details are kept in a sealed cover. You just need to open the sealed cover and give the details.”

Salve kept insisting that the bank had to act cautiously to ensure it does not make any mistake “in a hurry to give numbers,” and that they “don't want to create any havoc by making any mistake.” But Justice Khanna dismissed the arguments by saying, “There is no question of any mistake. You have the KYC. You are the number one bank in the country. We expect you to handle it.” 

When Salve said that the bank could provide the information in three weeks if correlating the purchaser with the recipient was not required, Justice Khanna expressed his surprise. “Three weeks for what?” he asked, while Justice Khanna pointed out that political parties had already given the details of the encashment made by them. “Purchaser details are already available,” Khanna was quoted as saying.

According to the Bar and Bench, the CJI said that though the court was not exercising the contempt jurisdiction, placed the “SBI on notice that this court will proceed against it for wilful disobedience of court if it does not adhere to the directions issued by the court.” The has also asked for an affidavit from the SBI’s top management about their compliance. 

Following the order, KC Venugopal, Congress general secretary in charge of organisation, said that the top court had “once again come to protect Indian democracy from the devious machinations of this regime.” 

“It was laughable for the SBI to seek an extension on a simple 1-day job. The fact is that the government is scared of all their skeletons tumbling out of the closet. This mega corruption scandal, as certified by the Supreme Court, will expose the unholy nexus between the BJP and its corrupt corporate masters,” he wrote in a social media post. 

Another opposition party, Tamil Nadu’s ruling force, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, too, welcomed the verdict, with party spokesperson Saravanan Annadurai saying that coming days are going to be “an exciting time for the opposition."

No senior leader from the BJP, which is the biggest beneficiary of political funding through the electoral bonds scheme, commented till the filing of this report.