Electoral bonds: SC rejects SBI's plea for time extension. Here's the full text of the order

The bench said it may be inclined to proceed against SBI for its "wilful disobedience" of its February 15 verdict if the bank failed to comply with its directions and timelines.
SC dismisses SBI's plea seeking extension of time to submit details of Electoral Bonds, directs disclosure by March 12
SC dismisses SBI's plea seeking extension of time to submit details of Electoral Bonds, directs disclosure by March 12PTI Photo

The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed the State Bank of India's plea seeking extension of time till June 30 and directed it to furnish the details of electoral bonds to the Election Commission by close of business hours on March 12.

A five-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud also directed the EC to publish the details shared by the bank on its official website by 5 pm on March 15.

The bench, also comprising Justices Sanjiv Khanna, B R Gavai, J B Pardiwala, and Manoj Misra, put the SBI on notice that the apex court may be inclined to proceed against it for "wilful disobedience" of its February 15 verdict if the bank failed to comply with its directions and timelines.

In a landmark verdict delivered on February 15, a five-judge Constitution bench had scrapped the Centre's electoral bonds scheme that allowed anonymous political funding, calling it "unconstitutional" and ordered disclosure by the EC of donors, the amount donated by them and the recipients by March 13.

Ordering the closure of the scheme, the top court 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 the Election Commission.

The following is the order issued by the Supreme Court:

"By the order dated 15 February, this court declared the electoral bonds scheme and the provisions of the Finance Act 2017..unconstitutional on the ground that the non-disclosure of information regarding the funding of political parties is violative of the right to information of citizens under Article 19 of the Constitution. The amendments which were introduced by the Finance Act 2017 to the provisions of the Companies Act permitting unlimited funding of political parties by corporates were held to be arbitrary and violative of Article 14 of the constitution.

In order to give full effect to the judgment by the constitutional bench, this court directed the State Bank of India, which was the authorized bank to deal with electoral bonds under the scheme to submit details of the electoral bonds purchased by the contributors and redeemed by political parties between April 12, 2019..until February 15, 2024. This court directed SBI to submit the following details by March 6 2024 to the ECI.

A - Details of each electoral bond purchased, including the date of purchase, the name of the purchaser and the denomination of the electoral bond;

B - Details of each electoral bond redeemed including the date of encashment and the denomination.

The ECI was directed to collate the information and publish it on its website by 13 March 2024...

SBI filed a miscellaneous application before this court two days before the expiry of the deadline seeking an extension of the deadline...The petitioners before this court instituted a petition invoking the contempt jurisdiction of this court for alleged wilful disobedience of the order of this court.

In support of the application by SBI, we have heard Mr Harish Salve...Mr Salve submitted that the information which was received by the SBI was maintained in two separate silos and was maintained with the utmost secrecy to fulfill the purpose of the electoral bonds scheme.

The counsel submitted that if the disclosure is to be made of the information..the separate silos..there would be no difficulty of the SBI doing so, and it can be completed in three weeks.

The matching exercise to match the donor and bond details with the corresponding encashment by political parties.

While evaluating the submissions made by the SBI, a reference to some of the key aspects of the scheme would be in order.

Clause 7 (4) of the scheme stipulates that the information furnished by an electoral bond shall be..disclosed only when called upon to do so by the competent court or the registration of an offence by a law enforcement agency.

Thus, within the provisions of the scheme itself, SBI is mandated to disclose the information when demanded by the court. What has to be analysed is whether SBI is justified in seeking an extension of time.

SBI seeks an extension on the ground that the process of decoding the bonds and matching the donor to the donation is a complex and time consuming exercise. To substantiate this argument, SBI has averred that:

A) Information is not available in a digital format: Clause of 7.1.2 of the standard operating procedure regarding the sale and purchase of electoral bonds stipulates that "no details of the bond purchaser, including KYC and other details, will be entered in the core banking system". Thus, the details of the purchases of the bonds are not available centrally.

B) The donor details and recipient details are available in two separate silos. The details of the purchases of the bonds were kept in a sealed cover, which were deposited in the main branch at the end of each phase of the issuance of electoral bonds. The information on the redemption of the bonds were stored in a sealed cover and sent to the Mumbai branch.

C) Matching the information in the two silos is a time-consuming process. The matching would be time consuming since donor information and redemption information is maintained in two distinct silos independent of each other.

D) There is a large number of data sets to decipher. A total of 22,217 bonds were purchased...This would add up to 44,434 data sets since there are two silos. In other words, the compilation would be a time-consuming process.

The crux of the submission is that 'to ascertain who contributed to which political party is a time consuming process since the information is maintained in two separate silos.

The operative directions issued by the court..directed the SBI to disclose the transactions..SBI submits in its application itself that the donor details and redemption details, albeit in separate silos. In other words, the directions of the court asked SBI to disclose information which is already available to it.

At this stage it would be pertinent to refer to the FAQs on electoral bonds published by the SBI, which state that the KYC documents must be submitted by the purchaser each time the bond is purchased irrespective of whether the purchaser has KYC-verified SBI account. That is, one set of documents (electoral bond application forms, KYC documents and pay-in slips) can only be used to purchase on electoral bond...Thus the details of the electoral bonds which have been purchased and which have been directed to be disclosed are readily available. Similarly, FAQs on electoral bonds published by the SBI with respect to the redemption states that each party can only open one current account for electoral bond redemption. The current account could be opened by the party only 29 branches..Pay slips and other details will have to be submitted to the main branch...

Together with the application which has been filed by the SBI for the extension..ADR has filed a contempt petition, in which it has submitted that the information can be easily disclosed by SBI due to the unique ID of the bond. Irrespective of whether the unique ID will enable the disclosure of information, the information in the application by SBI is enough to prove that the information which has been directed to be disclosed is readily available.

In view of the above discussion, the application filed by SBI seeking an extension of time..is dismissed. SBI is directed to disclose the details by the close of business hours of March 12. As regards the ECI, we direct that it shall compile the information and publish the details no later than by 5 PM, March 15...

While we are not inclined to exercise the contempt jurisdiction at this stage..we place SBI on notice that this court may be inclined to proceed against it for wilful disobedience of a judgment if SBI does not comply with the directions of this court as set out in its judgment dated Feb 15 by the timelines indicated in this order...The contempt petition shall stand disposed of at this stage."

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