By DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA / JANUARY 25 2010
It’s a landmark judgment from the US Supreme Court that has left President Barack Obama and many like minded people fuming. On Thursday, the SC by a 5:4 majority overturned a 20-year-old ruling that prohibited corporations from opening their purse strings for presidential and congressional elections. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the long-standing campaign against finance limits violated constitutional free-speech rights of the corporations. Without appearing to be critical of the SC judgment, Obama said, “The Supreme Court has given a green light to the new stampede of special interest money in our politics.”
Imagine such a judgment coming from the Indian Supreme Court. Immediately, the knives would have been out against the judges and the rumour mills would have gone berserk circulating that the judges, who favoured open funding of candidates in elections, were bought over by corporate honchos. The Supreme Court of India had mostly taken a traditional view of political funding as it has always laid a great deal of emphasis on the core value of democracy, be it the Mohinder Singh Gill vs Chief Election Commissioner [1978 (1) SCC 405] or Union of India vs Association for Democratic Reforms [2002 (5) SCC 294].
In both these cases, the common reference point was the common voter, identified as the little man by Winston Churchill, who had said, “At the bottom of all tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into a little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper; no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of the point.” Keeping in mind this “overwhelming importance of the point”, the SC had in 1996 examined the allegation that during elections, crores of rupees were spent by political parties without indicating the source of the money so spent. Petitioner Common Cause through its president H D Shourie had said, “Elections in this country are fought with the help of money power which is gathered from black sources. Once elected to power, it becomes easy to collect tons of black money which is used for retaining power and for re-election. This vicious circle has totally polluted the basic democracy in the country.” Though the apex court did not lay down any law preventing use of “corporate donations” in elections by political parties, it put a rider — all political parties must file return of income in respect of every assessment year as required under the Income Tax Act.
It lambasted the I-T authorities, saying they had been wholly remiss in the performance of their statutory duties under law. “The said authorities have for a long period failed to take appropriate action against the defaulter political parties,” the SC had said in the April 4, 1996, judgment. It had also asked the finance ministry to appoint an inquiring body “to find out why and in what circumstances the mandatory provisions of Income Tax Act regarding filing of return of income by political parties were not enforced.” There had been no case of a single political party been penalised for not furnishing proper income returns. Everything appears to have been normal and within law. If that is so, then in this era of right to information, will the political parties be pleased to answer this open RTI query: Which industrial house paid how much as political donation in a normal year and during the election year?”