The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court today dismissed the State Bank of India's (SBI) plea seeking an extension of time to disclose details of Electoral Bonds in compliance with the judgment of the Constitution Bench.

The Bench headed by Chief Justice of DY Chandrachud and also comprising Justice Sanjiv Khanna, Justice BR Gavai, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra held that the SBI has admitted that donor and redemption details are available with it, albeit in separate silos. The Court noted that the purchaser had to submit KYC information each time it made a purchase of a Bond. The Court held that the details of purchased Bonds are "readily available". The Court held that information about Electoral Bonds is stored only in 29 branches which can easily be accessed.

The Court accordingly dismissed the application for extension of time by the SBI and SBI was directed to disclose the information by the end of business hours on March 12. The Court directed ECI to publish the information by March 15 by 5 pm. The Court said that it will consider contempt petitions if the latest directions are not complied with.

In its order, the Court said that to give full effect to the judgment, the Court had directed the SBI to submit details of the Electoral Bonds as mentioned in the judgment. The Court then set out the information that had to be submitted by the SBI to the ECI by March 6. The Court noted that the ECI was to collate the information submitted by the SBI and publish it on its website by March 13.

The Court noted that the Petitioners including the CPI(M) have instituted contempt petitions. The Court recorded the arguments made on behalf of the SBI. The Court recorded the submission on behalf of the SBI that it was under the impression that the donor and bond details had to be correlated with the corresponding details pertaining to encashment by political parties.

The Court held that such an exercise is to be done as per the provision of the Electoral Bonds Scheme itself when demanded by a Court. The Court while considering the plea by the SBI in asking for more time to disclose such information noted that the details of the Bonds are not stored by the Bank in digital records or entered into the core banking system and hence not available centrally. The Court noted that the donor and recipient details are in separate silos.

The Court recorded the procedure followed by the SBI while issuing bonds, as stated by it in its affidavit, and how the information was stored and why according to the SBI it will be time consuming to match the data in the two silos. The Court noted the submission of the SBI that there are forty four thousand data sets. The Court noted the submission of the SBI that matching who donated to which political party will be time consuming.

During the hearing, Senior Advocate Harish Salve appearing for the SBI submitted at the outset, "We need a little more time to comply with your lordships' order". He read from the operative portion of the Judgment and submitted that the only problem is that the SBI is trying to collate the information and that it is now having to reverse the process because as per the standard operating procedure, the information was supposed to be secret and only few officials in the bank had access to the information.

CJI Chandrachud then read from the SBI's affidavit about the procedure that was followed by the SBI relating to Electoral Bonds and reasons why it will be a time-consuming exercise to compile the data as required by the Judgment. He then told Salve that the ground sought for extension of time, i.e. the work that the Bank will have to do according to it, are things that the Court has not directed the Bank to do.

Salve told the Court because of secrecy requirements, the Bank adopted a procedure that is now making it difficult for it to compile the data now.

Justice Sanjiv Khanna then said, "You just have to open the sealed cover, collate the data and give the details".

"I have full details of who purchased the bond, but that is put in one silo of information. I have full details of where the money came from, which is in a second silo. I have the complete detail of which political party tendered how many bonds, and who has been paid how much, that is an easy aspect. The problem is I have to now put the name of the purchaser, which is the sealed packet, physically kept. Each form will have to be taken out, name checked, correlate it to payment details and co-relate payment detail to the bond, and finally, that is when the bond number gets generated, then we can connect as to which political party has given the money", Salve submitted.

"Where is the direction to correlate it with the purchaser and the political party", Justice Gavai asked.

"Para 76 suggests that", Salve said.

"Don't go by what is suggested, whatever we wanted to say we have said in black and white", Justice Gavai said.

The CJI then said that the Judgment of February 15 and we are now in March and asked what work has been done till date by SBI. Salve responded by saying that the SBI can file and affidavit containing those details. The CJI then replied that in a matter like the present one, the SBI should have done that earlier.

Salve said that if the SBI makes any mistake, it will be sued by the parties involved. The Bench responded by saying that the SBI will be acting based on the Judgment and that it need not have that fear.

The CJI then said that ECI has filed details in a sealed cover pursuant to an interim order in the matter and that the sealed cover can now be directed to be opened. The Court also said that it had not opened the cover earlier.

The Court then proceeded to open the sealed cover submitted by the ECI earlier during the pendency of the main matter and took time to peruse the same.

Salve then submitted that the way out will be not to create a "bridge" between two sets of data that have been directed to be furnished.

The CJI then said that the Bench wants to dictate the order in open court.

"If B and C are not to be matched, we can give the information in three weeks", said Salve explaining what information can be given immediately and what will take time.

The Court then proceeded to dictate the order.

The SBI had filed an application seeking an extension of time to disclose details of Electoral Bonds in compliance with the judgment of the Constitution Bench, by four months.

Thereafter, on March 7, Advocate Prashant Bhushan had mentioned before the Apex Court seeking urgent listing of a Contempt Petition filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) against the State Bank of India (SBI). The Contempt Petition had been filed citing the alleged non-compliance of the judgment dated February 15 and the recent application filed by the SBI seeking an extension to disclose details of electoral bonds by for months.

Contempt Petitions have also been filed by NGO Common Cause and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The 5-Judge Constitutional Bench, while pronouncing the judgment in February 15, 2023, in the batch of four pleas, including those filed by Congress leader Jaya Thakur and the CPI(M) had directed: "
SBI shall submit the above information to the ECI within 3 weeks from the date of this judgment, i.e. March 6, 2024
In the Judgment, there are two opinions of the Court, one by CJI himself and Justice Gavai, Justice Pardiwala and Justice Misra and another authored by Justice Khanna. However, both arrive at the same conclusion with slight variance in reasoning. The Court had also passed other directions.
The Bench further held that the unlimited contribution by companies is unconstitutional and is manifestly arbitrary as "companies have a much greater influence on political parties than individuals. As individuals have a degree of support or affiliation to a political association.However, purely business transactions made with the intent to secure benefits in return
The scheme, which was notified by the government on January 2, 2018, was pitched as an alternative to cash donations made to political parties as part of efforts to bring in transparency in political funding. According to the provisions of the scheme, electoral bonds may be purchased by any citizen of India or entity incorporated or established in India. An individual can buy electoral bonds, either singly or jointly with other individuals.
The hearing can be viewed here.
Cause Title: Association For Democratic Reforms and Anr. v. Union Of India And Ors. & Connected Matters