(Editor’s Note: In April 2018, an investigation by The Quint revealed that electoral bonds carried unique hidden alphanumeric numbers. Our reporter‘s relentless coverage of the scheme – wherein we broke the news that the government’s claim of donor anonymity was untrue – won her a Ramnath Goenka Award in 2020 in the ‘Investigative Reporting‘ category. As the Supreme Court strikes down electoral bonds as unconstitutional in a landmark judgment on Thursday, 15 February, The Quint is republishing this from its archives. Become a member to support us in our endeavour to always bring you the truth.)
In a major exposé, an investigation by The Quint revealed that electoral bonds have hidden alphanumeric numbers printed on them to track down the link between donors and political parties.
This apparent outmanoeuvring by the government poses a critical question – in the name of more 'transparency' in political funding, following the introduction of electoral bonds, are we being subjected to an unprecedented secret surveillance?
Electoral bonds were promised to be anonymous as no one other than the donor themselves is supposed to know which political party they are contributing to.
The Quint's investigation revealed that while the public will remain clueless about who has donated to which party, the government has access to those details, collated through alphanumeric numbers on the electoral bonds, which are invisible to the naked eye. This adds to the government's already burgeoning repository of data, which now may not only have details of our bank accounts and financial transactions, but also our likely political preferences.
Here is Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's assurance that political donations via electoral bonds will remain anonymous.
Lab Report Reveals Hidden Numbers On Electoral Bonds
Following the purchase of two electoral bonds worth Rs 1,000 each, The Quint got forensic tests done to find out whether these bonds carry any hidden letters or numbers. The first bond was purchased on 5 April and the second one on 9 April. Both were purchased at State Bank of India branches designated to issue electoral bonds.
The test was conducted at one of the most reputed forensic labs in the country. The lab report revealed the presence of unique alphanumeric numbers on both bonds.
The electoral bond issued on 5 April carries the hidden and unique number OT 015101, while the one issued on 9 April has the unique number OT 015102. The lab report says the hidden serial number was "visible on the right top corner of the original document showing fluorescence when examined under Ultra Violet (UV) Light."
Is Big Brother Watching? Why?
Naturally, this begs some questions of the government, and of the State Bank of India, which issues the electoral bonds. Is someone playing Big Brother here?
Why Did Finance Minister Arun Jaitley Promise Anonymity?
Our investigation stands in stark contrast to Union Finance Minister's views on electoral bonds. Arun Jaitley had earlier said "how much each donor has distributed to a political party would be known only to the donor."
Electoral bonds were introduced by the government as a bearer instrument in the nature of a promissory note to make donations through a banking channel to political parties by individuals and corporates. The government said that electoral bonds would curb "the conventional practice of funding the political system in cash and undertake these expenditures in cash."
Electoral bonds are sold every quarter for the first 10 days of the month. They can be procured from designated branches of the State Bank of India alone.
The Quint had showed in an earlier report that an electoral bond does not carry any serial number that can be seen with the naked eye. The purchaser of the bond, therefore, is misled into believing that he/she cannot be tracked as no number or name is written on the bond apart from the date of issuance.
Meanwhile, a top level State Bank of India official said that the number is merely a "security feature."
We don't believe this code is a tracking mechanism. This was put in those papers as a security feature only.
The official has thus confirmed the presence of unique alphanumeric characters on electoral bonds.
SBI has also issued a second statement, saying:
The number is a security feature and the design and security features have been incorporated at the request of SBI. The process of issuance and payment has been designed in such a manner that the bank will not have any record of the above number either for the donor or political party. Only the count of denomination-wise bonds issued and paid is captured in the records. There is no way to connect which donor has made donation to which party. The bank can share only KYC/AML-related records of donor to an authorised investigating agency or the courts under the relevant laws. Bank is not authorised to share the details with any other government department or agency.Spokesperson, State Bank of India
If the existence of these unique hidden numbers is for security purposes only, then why aren’t the existing watermarks on the electoral bonds enough?
The Quint has written to the Ministry of Finance seeking a reply as to why a hidden number exists on the electoral bond. This copy will be updated if and when we receive a response.