Modi’s Party Was Biggest Beneficiary of Now-Banned Electoral Bonds

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A little known Indian lottery company was the top buyer of now-banned electoral bonds over the past five years, raising questions about political donor funding in the world’s biggest democracy.

The Election Commission of India on Thursday released the identities of the biggest buyers of the bonds for the first time following the Supreme Court’s ruling last month abolishing the opaque funding scheme. The paper instruments previously allowed individuals or companies to make anonymous donations to a political party.

Future Gaming and Hotel Services Pvt., a little-known firm that’s been investigated by India’s money laundering agency in the past, was the biggest buyer of the bonds, data released by the Election Commission showed. The company purchased 13.68 billion rupees ($165 million), or about 11% of the total bonds sold between April 2019 and January this year, according to Bloomberg calculations based on the data.

The company, based in Tamil Nadu, and the charitable organization of the founder, Santiago Martin, didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment. Calls to the company’s office went unanswered.

Some of India’s leading companies including Vedanta Ltd., Bharti Airtel Ltd., ITC Ltd., Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. and Cipla were among the buyers of electoral bonds. However, widely known businesses owned by India’s two richest billionaires — Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani - didn’t appear on the list.

The Supreme Court last month banned the bonds, saying it violated citizens’ fundamental right to information. It ordered State Bank of India — the only lender authorized to facilitate the buying and encashing of the electoral bonds — to provide the information to the Election Commission.

State Bank of India didn’t provide details of the bonds that would allow donors to be matched with the recipient political parties. The Supreme Court on Friday questioned why the bank didn’t provide identity codes for the bonds, and has demanded a response on Monday.

Experts said the data released so far wouldn’t immediately bring transparency.

“The release of this data is a good first step, but it should be followed up with details on how much each donor gave to which political party,” said Leah Verghese, a research manager at Daksh, a Bengaluru-based law and justice reform think-tank.

The figures come just weeks before India heads to elections, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is widely expected to extend his decade in power.

The Election Commission’s data showed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was the biggest recipient of the donations made via the bonds over the past five years, earning 60.61 billion rupees, or about 47% of the total. The Indian National Congress, the main opposition party, received about 11% of the funds.

Modi’s government first unveiled the electoral bond program in 2018, saying the initiative would provide more transparency by routing the donations through the banking system and eradicating illicit money flows. Prior to the electoral bonds scheme being implemented in 2018, political parties received funds through cash, checks and electoral trusts.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman defended the electoral bonds on Friday, saying at a media event that “money was going from a bank account to another party’s account.” and that “at least then the money reaching a party was legitimate.”

Jairam Ramesh, a spokesman for the Congress party, said it will continue to demand more information “so that we can precisely match donors to recipients.”

India’s elections due April and May are expected to be one of the most expensive in the world, with political parties set to spend more than 1.2 trillion rupees, according to a report from the Centre for Media Studies.

Political funding has historically remained largely opaque and flawed in India, and the recent move to ban electoral bonds may do little to shed light on the matter.

“We have gone back to the pre-electoral bonds system where 70% of all donations were in cash,” S.Y. Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner of India, said by phone before the donor details were released. “We don’t know if its mafia money or illicit drug money.”

--With assistance from Ruchi Bhatia, Rakesh Sharma and Shruti Mahajan.

(Updates throughout with comments and quotes)

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