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Electoral bonds: Plea seeks contempt action against SBI for disobeying SC's order

Electoral bonds: Plea seeks contempt action against SBI for disobeying SC's order
New Delhi, A petition has been filed in the Supreme Court seeking contempt action against the State Bank of India (SBI) alleging it "wilfully and deliberately" disobeyed the apex court's direction to submit details of contributions made to political parties through electoral bonds to the Election Commission by March 6. The plea, filed by two NGOs, claimed SBI's application seeking extension of time till June 30 to disclose the details of electoral bonds encashed by political parties has been deliberately filed at the last moment to ensure that details of donor and the amount of donations are not disclosed to the public before the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

A bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud on Thursday took note of the submissions by advocate Prashant Bhushan, who appeared on behalf of NGOs Association for Democratic Reforms and Common Cause, that he wanted initiation of contempt proceedings against the SBI.

Bhushan said the SBI's application is likely to be listed on March 11 and the contempt application should also be heard together with it.

"Please send an e-mail. I will pass the order," the CJI said.

The SBI moved the top court on March 4 seeking extension of time till June 30 to disclose the details of the electoral bonds that were encashed.

In a landmark verdict on February 15, a five-judge constitution bench of the apex court had scrapped the Centre's electoral bonds scheme of anonymous political funding, calling it "unconstitutional" and ordering disclosure by the Election Commission of the donors, the amount donated by them and the recipients by March 13.

Ordering closure of the scheme forthwith, the top court had directed the SBI, the authorised financial institution under the scheme, to submit by March 6 the details of the electoral bonds purchased since April 12, 2019 till date to Election Commission (EC), which will publish the information on its official website by March 13.

In the contempt plea, the NGOs have said that two days before the expiry of the stated deadline, the SBI has filed an application seeking time till June 30 to comply with the directions.

"It is submitted that the said application is mala fide and demonstrates a wilful and deliberate disobedience & defiance of the judgement passed by the constitution bench of this court. It is further a clear attempt to undermine the authority of this court," it said.

"The petitioner herein is filing the instant petition seeking initiation of contempt proceedings against State Bank of India for wilfully and deliberately disobeying the order dated February 15 passed by this court... wherein this court directed SBI to submit details of contribution made to the political parties through electoral bonds to the Election Commission of India by March 6," it said.

It said the affidavit supporting the SBI's application has neither been sworn by the chairman or the managing director of the bank.

It said SBI has the record of the unique number allotted to each electoral bond and the know your customer (KYC) details of its purchaser.

"The requirement of the KYC is mentioned in section 4 of the EB scheme itself, therefore, the SBI is well aware of the identity of purchasers of each electoral bond," the plea said.

It said as per clause 7 of the electoral bond scheme, information furnished by the buyer can be disclosed when demanded by a competent court.

"As per clause 12 (4) of the scheme, electoral bonds have to be encashed within fifteen days failing which the amount of bonds not encashed are to be deposited by the bank to the PM relief Fund. Thus, it is inconceivable that SBI does not have the recorded information readily available within its data base," it said.

The plea said electoral bonds are "completely traceable" which is evident from the fact that SBI maintains a secret number-based record of donors who buy bonds, and the political parties they donate to.

It said as per information received through RTI, in 30 phases of electoral bonds sale, only 19 out of 29 SBI authorised branches sold electoral bonds and 14 SBI branches encashed them.

"The data available as on January 2024 further shows that only 25 political parties had opened their account and are eligible for encashing electoral bonds. Therefore, compiling of this information should not be difficult as the system is already in place," it said.

"It is mandatory that SBI furnishes all information relating to electoral bonds within stipulated time frame given by this court as voters will not be able to exercise their informed opinion properly during Lok Sabha 2024 if complete information about EBs is not shared with them," it said.

The plea said any form of anonymity in the finances of political parties goes against the essence of participatory democracy and people's right to know enshrined under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

It said availability of information about electoral bonds will give voters a chance to truly inspect, express and decide their choices.

"This defiant approach of the SBI towards citizen's 'right to know' about huge sums of money received by parties through electoral bonds and corporates in a non-transparent and unaccountable manner is reprehensible and betrays its clear motive to stifle citizen's voice and right to audit actions of the political class, and therefore it should be held as serious breach of contempt by this court," it alleged.

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