Why Government Surveillance of Political Funding Imperils Democracy

by Ritwik on April 27, 2018

This was published in The Quint

The presence of secret numbers on supposedly anonymous electoral bonds is not accidental. Rather, it is one part of an elaborate surveillance network which has been constructed to monitor virtually all aspects of individuals’ lives. Unless we take prompt action, our basic political freedoms could be in grave peril.

It has been five days since The Quint’s extraordinary exposé which revealed that electoral bonds – allowing individuals to make cashless donations anonymously to political parties – actually have unique codes on them which are visible only under UV light.

The presence of these codes raises the spectre of government monitoring of political funding. Not surprisingly, there has been no reaction from a government that needs a massive national and international push to even respond to graphic cases of rape, murder, or public lynching happening under its watch.

The Government of India today has at its disposal an elaborate architecture of keeping track of its subjects. At the center of this architecture lies the Aadhaar number, which is linked biometrically to each Indian, thus uniquely identifying them and all the services that Aadhaar is linked to, namely details of their bank accounts and transactions, telephone and electronic communication, tax information, details of the government benefits they receive, etc. to anybody who has access to the Aadhaar database.

Given that electoral bonds are to be purchased from banks, and that bank accounts are linked to Aadhaar, it is conceivable and in fact likely that the government can pull up at will the transaction history of each electoral bond, thus linking each donor, howsoever big or small, to the political parties that they donate to. Thus, the government has equipped itself with the power to subtly disrupt even basic health, nutrition, and educational services to political dissidents or the funders of its political opponents. This is also true of any entity, foreign or Indian, private or public, which is given or gains access to the Aadhaar database. It is not whether governments will use this power – the fact remains that modern technology (like Aadhaar), once linked to all aspects of one’s life, gives them this unprecedented power. After all, let us not forget that Nazi Germany would’ve been less efficient at disposing off Jews had they not had access to national lists of Jews prepared by IBM and other companies.

There exists a frustrating level of opacity about the relevant safeguards on the use of the data that the government is collecting on all of us. There is little clarity on the individual’s right to their own data, the period of time for which any bit of data shall be retained, rights-based restrictions to prevent misuse of data, and what parts of data and under what conditions can be shared with private or foreign entities. The opacity on these vital aspects is disturbing and frankly, frightening. Welfare oriented schemes are typically designed with safeguards and objective scrutiny built in. Current government of India actions embody the opposite of such practices.

It is clear from the above that, equipped with the secret codes on electoral bonds, combined with the general architecture of surveillance that now exists, the government can minutely track political funding. But, why is that a bad thing? Couldn’t an argument be made that government surveillance over political funding will make the political process, particular elections, more transparent and less corrupt?

It is well known that the absence of transparent funding mechanisms for elections, which are naturally extremely expensive given India’s size and diversity, is one of the major driving forces for corruption. For several decades, in fact, scholars who study Indian politics have examined this trend. Many of those scholars are united, however, in their view that the answer lies in state funding of elections, where parties would be allotted funds based on their performance (in terms of vote share) in previous elections across different levels. The current government of India, on the other hand, claims to be attacking the problem of corruption by introducing electoral bonds. The idea is to outlaw or disincentive cash funding of political parties, and have parties funded entirely by electoral bonds, and then for parties to reveal these details in yearly disclosures to the election commission.

On the face of it, it is difficult to determine how electoral bonds actually get rid of the problem of large scale corruption associated with corporate funding of political parties – because such funding can continue to be under the table as seems to be the practice today. In fact, recently the government removed long-standing caps on the percentage of corporate profits that can be donated to parties, thus opening up the political scene to even more corporate money. It is the relatively smaller (individual or company) donors who would mostly be targeted by electoral bonds. While the government claims that parties are not compelled to reveal the names of these relatively small donors, the Quint has exposed that it has nonetheless armed itself with the machinery to track such funding. It is very worrisome that the government seems to have been caught in an outright lie to the people.

While it is a worldwide practice to require corporations to reveal details about the politicians or parties they fund, since there can be clear conflicts of interest in such cases, we should be a lot more cautious about doing away with anonymity at the level of individuals’ contribution to political causes. Individuals don’t have the power or scale of corporations, nor are there conflicts of interest between parties acquiring small funding from individuals and the policies they will enact once in power.

The electoral bond system doesn’t attack the sources of corruption at its roots, which would be done much better through state funding of elections. It arms the government with yet another tool to monitor the citizenry and the opposition. Troublingly, this is in sync with the government’s push toward ‘cashless’ economy with policies like demonetization. As has been extensively noted, most of the ‘black money’ in the economy is held by high net worth individuals and rich corporations, who have access to elaborate international mechanisms to reroute the money and hence make it ‘clean’. The primary goal of demonetization and ‘cashless’ appears to be to allow the government to monitor individuals’ transactions.

The similarity with other policies like demonization strengthens the idea that the presence of secret numbers on supposedly anonymous electoral bonds is part of an elaborate surveillance network which has been constructed to monitor virtually all aspects of individuals’ lives. Unless we take prompt action, our basic political freedoms could be in grave peril.

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