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Indian Express Editorial Analysis

16-February-2024

1. Democracy’s guardian angel

Topic: GS2 – Governance – Important aspects of governance: Transparency and accountability GS2 – Polity – Judiciary This topic is relevant for both Prelims and Mains in the context of knowing facts about electoral funding, transparency, and accountability in governance.
Context:
  • On February 15, 2024, the Supreme Court of India delivered a historic judgment that will be remembered as a pivotal moment in the nation’s democratic history.
  • The verdict, rendered by a five-member Constitution Bench, addressed the controversial Electoral Bonds Scheme, declaring it unconstitutional.
  • This analysis will delve into the key aspects of the judgment and its implications for India’s electoral process, focusing on the scheme’s flaws, the concerns raised by independent institutions, and the potential alternatives for reform.
Unanimous Rejection of Electoral Bonds Scheme:
  • The Supreme Court’s decision represents a resounding endorsement of democratic principles, as it struck down every challenge to the Electoral Bonds Scheme.
  • The Court deemed the scheme violative of the right to information, emphasizing that the Constitution does not turn a blind eye to potential misuse merely for the sake of curbing black money.
  • By ordering the immediate cessation of bond issuance and the disclosure of all pertinent information to the Election Commission of India (ECI), the Court has reinforced transparency and accountability in the electoral process.
Intriguing Origins and Legislative Amendments:
  • The origins of the Electoral Bonds Scheme, introduced in the Union budget of 2017 by the late finance minister Arun Jaitley, are marked by irony and contradiction.
  • Despite initial statements emphasizing the necessity of transparency in political funding, the scheme ultimately fostered secrecy and opacity.
  • Legislative amendments, such as the immunization of donations from scrutiny by the ECI, raised concerns about the scheme’s potential to facilitate unaccounted money transfers and perpetuate crony capitalism.
  • Moreover, the modifications to various laws paved the way for electoral bonds, highlighting a concerted effort to overhaul existing regulations in favor of opaque political funding.
Overlooked Changes and Foreign Funding Concerns:
  • Significant alterations, such as the elimination of the donation limit for companies and the acceptance of foreign contributions by political parties, were enacted with inadequate scrutiny.
  • The retroactive amendment to shield foreign financing of elections from scrutiny underscores the gravity of the issue.
  • Independent institutions like the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Election Commission had expressed reservations about the scheme, citing concerns about undermining central banking principles and facilitating money laundering.
  • Despite these warnings, the government persisted in its pursuit of opaque political funding, disregarding fundamental principles of transparency.
Alternatives for Electoral Funding Reform:
  • In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, there is an urgent need to explore alternative approaches to cleanse electoral funding in India.
  • Options such as eliminating private funding in favor of public funding or establishing a National Election Fund merit consideration.
  • These alternatives could mitigate concerns about donor reprisals and ensure greater transparency in political financing.
  • However, the Court’s acknowledgment of potential misuse of funds by political parties highlights the need for robust oversight mechanisms to safeguard against illicit activities.
Conclusion:
  • The Supreme Court’s landmark judgment represents a significant milestone in India’s electoral democracy, signaling a renewed commitment to transparency and accountability.
  • By striking down the Electoral Bonds Scheme and associated legislative provisions, the Court has reaffirmed its role as the guardian of democracy.
  • Moving forward, concerted efforts must be made to enact meaningful reforms that prioritize the integrity of the electoral process and uphold the principles of democracy.
What are Electoral Bonds?
  • Electoral bonds are a form of anonymous donations to political parties that were introduced by the Finance Bill 2017 and notified on January 29, 2018.
  • The scheme allows any individual or entity to purchase electoral bonds from SBI in denominations of Rs 1,000, Rs 10,000, Rs 1 lakh, Rs 10 lakh, and Rs 1 crore and donate them to any registered political party.
  • The name of the donor is kept confidential and the bonds are valid for 15 calendar days from the date of issue.
  • The political parties have to create a specific account which is verified by the ECI to receive the electoral bonds.
  • Only those parties that secured not less than 1% of votes polled in the last general election to the House of the People or the Legislative Assembly of the State are eligible to receive electoral bonds.
PYQ: To enhance the quality of democracy in India the Election Commission of India has proposed electoral reforms in 2016. What are the suggested reforms and how far are they significant to make democracy successful? (250 words/15m) (UPSC CSE (M) GS-2 2017)
Practice Question:  Discuss the significance of the Supreme Court’s decision declaring the Electoral Bonds Scheme unconstitutional in the context of Indian democracy. (150 words/10 m)

2. Re-energising RTI

Topic: GS2 – Governance – Important aspects of governance: Transparency and accountability
GS2 – Polity – Judiciary
This topic is relevant for both Prelims and Mains in the context of knowing facts about significant decision by the Supreme Court of India, highlighting the interplay between constitutional provisions, such as Article 19(1)(a) (freedom of speech and expression), and legislative actions, such as the Right to Information Act.
Context:
  • The recent judgment by the Supreme Court (SC) declaring the Electoral Bonds (EB) scheme unconstitutional has profound implications for India’s democratic framework, particularly in the realm of transparency and accountability.
  • This landmark decision not only addresses the legality of the EB scheme but also revitalizes discussions surrounding the Right to Information Act (RTI Act) and its role in safeguarding democratic principles.
Reaffirmation of the Right to Information:
  • The SC’s ruling in favor of the RTI Act under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution signals a resurgence of the citizens’ right to access information, contrasting the arguments put forth by the Solicitor General (SG) regarding informational privacy.
  • By asserting the importance of disclosing donor and recipient identities, the Court underscores the essential role of transparency in sustaining democratic processes.
Challenges Faced by the RTI Act:
  • Despite the SC’s resolute stance on the RTI Act, the challenges faced by the legislation remain glaring.
  • The year 2023 witnessed a series of setbacks for the Act, including vacancies in Information Commissions, mounting pendency of appeals, and administrative lapses.
  • These issues underscore the pressing need for comprehensive reforms to address systemic deficiencies and restore the Act’s efficacy.
Historical Context and Evolution of the RTI Regime:
  • Reflecting on the inception and evolution of the RTI Act provides valuable insights into its transformative potential and enduring relevance.
  • Originating from grassroots movements such as the “Hamara Paisa, Hamara Hisab” campaign led by the Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan Samiti (MKSS) in rural Rajasthan, the Act has evolved into a cornerstone of India’s democratic governance.
Path Forward: Strengthening Transparency and Accountability:
  • The SC’s judgment serves as a catalyst for reinvigorating the RTI regime and advancing transparency and accountability in governance.
  • Proposals for establishing a committee under the Ministry of Personnel to address systemic challenges and promote stakeholder engagement offer promising avenues for reform.
  • Embracing the principles enshrined in the RTI Act, including transparency and accountability, is imperative for India to reinforce its stature on the global stage.
Conclusion:
  • The SC’s historic decision on the Electoral Bonds scheme underscores the intrinsic link between transparency, accountability, and democratic governance.
  • By reaffirming the citizens’ right to information, the Court has reignited discussions on the importance of the RTI Act in upholding democratic values.
  • As India navigates its journey towards economic prosperity and global leadership, prioritizing the revitalization of the RTI regime is essential to cementing its commitment to democratic ideals and ensuring inclusive governance for all citizens.
About Right to Information Act, 2005
  • Right To Information is derived from the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Constitution.
  • If we do not have information on how our Government and Public Institutions function, we cannot express any informed opinion on it.
  • The basic object of the Right to Information Act is to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government.
  • The Act and its rules define a format for –
  • requisitioning information,
  • a time period within which information must be provided,
  • a method of giving the information,
  • charges for applying and
  • exemptions of information which will not be given.
  • Key Provisions of the RTI Act include
  • Sec. 4 of the Act imposes an obligation on public authorities to maintain its records duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and form which facilitates the right to information under the Act.
  • Sec. 6 of the Act entitles a person desirous of obtaining any information under the Act, to make a request in writing to the Central or State Public Information Officer specifying the particulars of the information sought by him.
  • Sec. 7 of the Act requires the Public Information Officer to either provide the information or reject the request for any of the reasons specified in Secs. 8 and 9 within 30 days of receipt of the request.
  • Under Sec. 19, if a person does not receive a decision within 30 days or is aggrieved by a decision of the Public Information Officer, he may prefer an appeal to an Officer who is senior in rank to the Public Information Officer in that Public Authority.
  • Exemptions under the Act – the information sought must not be related to defence, national security, or personal details.
  • Before the advent of the RTI act, the disclosure of information in India was restricted by the Official Secrets Act and some other special laws. The RTI Act relaxed many such laws in the country.
PYQ: Recent amendments to the Right to Information Act will have profound impact on the autonomy and independence of the Information Commission”. Discuss. (150 words/10m) (UPSC CSE (M) GS-2 2020)
Practice Question:  Critically analyze the implications of the Supreme Court’s recent decision declaring the Electoral Bonds scheme unconstitutional on the Right to Information Act and its broader impact on transparency and accountability in Indian democracy. (250 words/15 m)

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