Thank you, Ministry of Finance! For confirming The Quint’s story that electoral bonds do carry a ‘hidden unique alphanumeric serial number’ in your press release. But your clarification still contains several contradictions.
The Quint’s exposé showed that the government misled the public by saying that a political donor’s identity would remain confidential if they made donations through electoral bonds.
In January 2018, when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley launched the electoral bonds, he promised that no donor to any political party need fear being tracked or harassed by anyone in power.
Unfortunately, that has turned out to be untrue.
Here is a point-by-point rebuttal to the clarification issued by the Ministry of Finance.
If It’s a Security Feature, Why Is It Unique?
The Finance Ministry has said that the hidden serial number on the bond is merely a security feature.
Let us quote the press release:
“The Electoral Bonds have some built in security features to eliminate chances of forgery or presentation of fake bonds. These include a random serial number invisible to the naked eye.”
But instead of answering the question, this raises several more:
1. If the hidden number is a security feature, then why is it unique?
The government could’ve hidden a common number, or a common pattern, in all bonds to achieve the aim of preventing forgery. To prevent forgery, where was the need for these hidden numbers to be unique?
2. Why do you need to add a unique hidden alphanumeric serial number as a security feature?
There are already several other watermarks present on the bonds that serve as security features. What is the use of another hidden one?
3. If the RBI has not embedded hidden serial numbers in our currency, why are they required on electoral bonds?
Like the bonds, Indian currency already carries several watermarks which are visible to naked eye if looked at against the light. Is the government trying to say that the electoral bonds (which expire in 15 days) are more valuable than Indian currency?
Why Hide the Number If It’s Not Recorded?
The Arun Jaitley-led Ministry of Finance’s press release says:
“This number is NOT noted by the State Bank of India in any record associated with a buyer or a political party depositing a particular electoral bond.”
If the hidden number is not noted or recorded by the SBI, why is it there at all? And how does the public know that it is not being recorded?
If the SBI has no record of these hidden unique numbers, then how can these numbers be used as a security feature?
How will the SBI find out whether a particular bond is genuine or fake if they don’t have any record of hidden serial numbers to tally with?
Buyers Not Named in Bonds, But SBI Keeps KYC Details
Quoting again from the press release:
“The Purchaser is allowed to buy electoral bond (s) only on due fulfilment of all the extant KYC norms and by making payment from a bank account. The Bond does not carry the name of payee or any other details by which the buyer can be identified.”
When I went to the SBI to buy an electoral bond worth merely Rs 1,000, I was looked upon with grave suspicion. I submitted self-attested KYC documents, which were scanned and crossed-checked with the originals several times for hours.
The SBI even refused to issue the electoral bond to me at one point when I informed them that my PAN card has been misplaced. I pointed out that my PAN number can be easily verified by the bank within minutes.
But the SBI official said:
“In this case, we cannot, as all instructions are coming from the Ministry of Finance.”
The senior SBI officer went to the extent of saying:
“We are just an arm of the government. All orders are given by the government, the Ministry of Finance. The bank doesn’t have any discretion in the case. Had you been my customer, I would have welcomed you. These are the requirements prescribed by the Government of India. We are merely the nodal/operating agency.”
So when Mr Jaitley’s ministry says:
“SBI does not share the serial number with anybody, including the Government and users.”
Can it be believed? That’s an open question. Let’s continue.
Where Is the ‘Security’ in ‘Security Feature’ If the Numbers Aren’t Recorded?
The political party has to deposit the original copy of the electoral bond to the SBI to redeem it. Certainly, the Ministry of Finance is right in saying that the bond doesn’t carry the name of the buyer or of the political party.
The finance ministry’s press release says:
“No detail of political party depositing the bonds is noted on the electoral bonds. Any particular bond cannot be identified or associated with any particular buyer or political party deposits it.”
But to redeem the electoral bond, the political party has to deposit the original bond in the SBI. Which means that after changing hands from SBI to donor, and from donor to political party, the bond will return to the SBI.
Now, isn’t it the responsibility of the SBI to check all the security features on the bond, including the hidden unique serial number, to ensure security?
Or will the SBI leave out the hidden unique as it is “not recorded”, as the press release says?
If the SBI is checking the unique hidden number as a security feature when it is deposited by the political party, then that means that the hidden unique number IS INDEED RECORDED when the SBI sells it to the donor.
One last question for Mr Jaitley’s ministry:
The press release admits that the electoral bonds have “Random Serial Numbers”. How can a number be both random and serialised at the same time? They can be one or the other – not both.
We await the Ministry of Finance’s response.