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Book the Guilty: Quint Journalist Who Found Alphanumeric Code on Electoral Bonds

Ex Quint journalist Poonam Agarwal's investigation had revealed presence of alphanumeric codes on electoral bonds.

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Camera: Athar Rather, Shiv Kumar Maurya

Video Editors: Abhishek Sharma, Mohd Irshad Alam

"It was only after this story that the Finance Ministry came out with the statement and it is in public domain. This story was published by The Quint in April (2018), the Finance Ministry came out with a statement and they accepted that there is an alphanumeric number," said award-winning journalist Poonam Agarwal.

All eyes are set on the alphanumeric data of electoral bonds as the 21 March deadline given by the Supreme Court to make it public nears.

However, when the electoral bonds scheme was first launched back in 2018, the government never mentioned their existence on the bonds to begin with, until an investigation by Agarwal, then senior correspondent at The Quint, revealed it.

As the codes prove crucial today for transparency in political funding, one wonders how the case against the bonds would have gone had Poonam Agarwal's investigation hadn't discovered the alphanumeric data.

In a conversation with The Quint, Agarwal recalls how she went about her investigation, the government's response to it, and what can be expected from the data that is to be revealed.

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How did you go about the investigation in 2018 when you actually revealed the very existence of these codes?

First of all, thank you for having me here. I worked for almost six years with The Quint, and I did this story here itself in 2018. And first of all, I would like to thank all my editors who supported me in chasing and pursuing this story at that time. 

Of course, the first story that I filed on The Quint after talking to a few SBI officers, they said - "No, nothing is there on the bond. There's no serial number. It's going to be kept anonymous. That's the ruling and that's what  the scheme is all about."

We purchased a bond. I went to the SBI branch at Parliament Street because that was the only branch which was selling it. And when I reached there, it was amazing. The officer who was selling this, he first asked me a few questions. He was suspicious about me, a bit like, how did I get to know about it? But then after a few queries, he said give your KYC, which is Aadhaar card and PAN card number. I gave him the details and then he made me fill a few forms. I gave him a check to pay for the bond because you cannot get it through cash. Once that was done, I was made to wait in the waiting room of the bank and he came back and he handed over the bond in an envelope.

All it had was a date and nothing else. The date was required, because the validity is for 15 days (to redeem the bonds). So, when you redeem it, how would the person know when it was purchased? So, this is the date of purchase. So, then I went to Truth Lab, one of the labs in Delhi. They do forensic tests. Of course, I had multiple questions, but I just still wanted to chase it a bit more. When the truth was out that there is an alphanumeric number, which is unique and hidden and visible only under ultraviolet light. It was a shocker. Fine, it's alphanumeric, it's hidden, visible only under ultraviolet rays. But how do you prove it's unique? So, I purchased a second bond and it clarified that it is a unique number, an alphanumeric and hidden which is visible only under the ultraviolet light.

Till your investigation revealed it, nowhere in the government's press releases or the SOPs or the FAQs or the guidelines for purchasing electoral bonds was it mentioned that there is an alphanumeric code which is not visible to the naked eye?

Absolutely. It was never mentioned. It was only after this story that the finance ministry came out with the statement and it is in public domain. This story was published by The Quint in April, and then Finance Ministry came out with a statement and they accepted that there is an alphanumeric number, I'll just read it. I have pulled that out and have kept it with me. The release was on 17 April 2018. It is still there on the website. It is three paragraphs but I'll read the relevant one. The ministry said: "The electoral bonds have some built-in and security features to eliminate chances of forgery or presentation of a fake bond. These include a random serial number invisible to the naked eye.

The number is not noted by the SBI in any record associated with the buyer or the political party, depositing a particular electoral bond."

So, this was the release where the finance minister for the first time told this in the public domain that there is one serial number which is unique. Prior to this, nobody knew it apart from the people in the government. There wasn't anything in public domain in any of the press releases on this scheme. It was not mentioned anywhere that there is a hidden number. 

Now, we are at a stage where the Supreme Court has already asked the SBI to share all the details related to the bonds, including the alphanumeric hidden number. So, now we are expecting that those numbers will be out in the public domain soon, just like the data of the purchaser and the political party that is already out.

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Tell the viewers what this alphanumeric code, once it is made public by the election commission, will establish?

The CJI asked the format of the numbers in which it was recorded. There is some amount of lack of clarity. I would say we do not know which format are they going to give the data in.

So, it will help match the purchaser and the political party exactly with each other because this code is common between the two of them?

Yes, because one bond has only one number. So, it's a security feature, so that's what the SBI has already said is being recorded. When the bond was being sold, they need to keep a record that the bond has been sold. Otherwise, how will you know that this bond has been sold and it will be encashed somewhere? So, suppose I buy a bond in Delhi, but I donate it to someone in Kolkata, some political party and they go to the Kolkata branch to redeem it. So, the Kolkata branch needs to have the records of it. Otherwise, how will they tally? So, this is the only number which is common between the two branches. If you get a data with the code next to the purchaser's name and the data with the code next to the political party's name, then those can be tallied. That is the common link between the two. So, once we get that data in two parts, if at all, it is in two parts, then only the tally is possible.

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So, it depends on which format they give the data in for us to be able to match it to the donors?

Absolutely, it all depends on which form they provide and if at all they provide in this format, like one number for the purchaser next to the name and the beneficiary when they went to redeem it and the number.

The entire premise of electoral bonds was the fact that the identity of the donors is going to remain anonymous. Won't it be a breach of that promise if the alphanumeric data comes out, especially for the donors who trusted the scheme for its anonymity?

So, the court actually spoke about it. The court said that after the first interim order was passed in 2019, it was obvious that the donors' names will not remain anonymous because in that interim order, the court said that all political parties must disclose the names of their donors and that data is already out. At that time itself, it was obvious that probably the scheme will not be the way it was. So, the court said that we are not going to ask for the data prior to that because the scheme was launched on this basis, the anonymity. But now that the interim order is there from 2019 onwards, we are in a position to ask for all the details.

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One very important question that lots of people are asking - what do you think publishing of this data will achieve? Or let me frame it this way - who do you think it will affect more, the parties or the donors? 

It's a tricky question. You read all of this and we know for a fact that nothing is easy in the current situation. And right now, whatever data we have and reports have been done so far on the companies and the shell companies and the possible quid pro quo and the corruption, anything and everything needs some concrete holding. As journalists we can report on it based on the documents. But for the right conclusion, which is justice - the people who are a part of the corruption are the people who are part of the wrongdoing - they are booked or charged. That can only happen if the matter is properly investigated by investigating agencies, and that can happen only after the complete data is out. So, first thing first is the matching. Only after that concrete and definite answers can be followed. And one of the petitioners in the court, Jagdeep Chhokar, rightly said that once all the documents are in the public domain, the facts are in public domain, then it should go to the court. Somebody will definitely go to the court to file appeal and ask for an inquiry. That's all I can say. Who will get affected and who will not get affected is something I can't say. But proper investigation should definitely happen and people who are a part of wrongdoings, they should be booked.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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