The Attorney General for India, R Venkataramani told the Supreme Court that citizens do not have the right to know about the funding of political parties ahead of the much-awaited hearing in the case challenging the legal validity of electoral bonds.
The Attorney General submitted this in his written submissions to the Supreme Court on behalf of the Centre. AG Venkataramani defended the electoral bonds scheme which allows anonymous donations to political parties saying that it does no impinge upon any existing rights and cannot be said to be repugnant to any fundamental rights under Part III of the Constitution.
His submissions read, “A law which is not so repugnant cannot be voided for any other reason. Judicial review is not about scanning State policies for the purposes of suggesting better or different prescriptions.”
Venkataramani said that there cannot be a general right to know anything and everything without being subjected to reasonable restrictions, adding that the SC’s judgments on the “right to know” were in the context of making informed choices about electoral candidates and knowing their antecedents.
The AG said, “These judgments cannot be read as to suggest that a citizen has a right to information under Art. 19(1)(a) regarding funding of political party. If there is no right under Article 19(1)(a), the further question of locating reasonable restriction under Article 19(2) does not arise.”
Venkataramani further said that the electoral bonds scheme is “within the scope of the Article 19(2) of the Constitution” which allows the government to impose reasonable restrictions on the exercise of fundamental rights.
The AG countered the arguments put forward by the petitioners calling for transparency in the funding of political parties, saying, “right to know for the general health of democracy” would be too overbroad.
He also mentioned that the right to know the criminal antecedents of a candidate cannot be compared with the case at hand.
On the apex court’s judgment in the case ‘People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India and Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms’, the Attorney General said that these cases concern information on the criminal antecedents of electoral candidates so that citizens have a choice to elect candidates free from blemish.
“Right to know for specific rightful expression was thus conceived. From that it cannot be said that the right to know for general or broad ends necessarily follows,” he said.
Venkataramani further cautioned against enabling any right to know the source of funding for political parties saying that the Court will also have to consider its impact on political parties and their right under Article 19(1)(c), that is, the right to form associations or unions.
As such, the issue deserves parliamentary debates, he suggested stressing on the matter that contributions to political parties has democratic significance.
The AG also argued that the demand for accountability from the government or having the government free from influence does not mean the Court can intervene in such matters unless there is a law that clearly offends the Constitution.
The AG’s submissions further mentioned, “Even when the Court proceeds to declare an aspect as part of a right for the first time, it will be in tune with separation of powers that the subject of reviewing or testing a law with the newly stated aspect of a right be relegated to public and parliamentary debates.”
It may be noted that an electoral bond is an instrument in the nature of a promissory note or bearer bond which can be purchased by any individual, company, firm or association of persons given that the person or body is a citizen of India or incorporated or established in India.
The bonds of multiple denominations are issued specifically for the purpose of contributing funds to political parties in its existing scheme. There are various petitions pending before the top court challenging at least give amendments made to different statutes through the Finance Act, 2017 on the ground that they have opened doors to unlimited, unchecked funding of political parties.
Moreover, the petitions have raised the ground that the Finance Act could not have been passed as a money bill. Six years after the matter was filed, these petitions are schedueled to be heard by a Constitution Bench of five judges of the Supreme Court on October 31.