Home Unbreak The News

Electoral Bonds Scheme: The Man Who Spearheaded the Fight

Commodore Lokesh Batra's fight against the Electoral Bonds Scheme shows incredible resilience. His efforts have led to systemic changes and have ignited discussions on transparency in political funding. | Unbreak the News with Prema Sridevi: Ep-110

By Prema Sridevi
New Update

One man's determination sometimes holds the power to reshape the world. This assertion holds true in the case of Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd), a dedicated advocate for transparency and an active RTI activist. His relentless pursuit of truth through numerous RTI petitions has led to significant disclosures regarding the electoral bonds scheme. Since embarking on his battle against the electoral bonds scheme in 2017, he has consistently filed RTIs, meticulously sharing the government documents he received with media outlets, independent journalists, and even petitioners in the Supreme Court who challenged the electoral bonds case. The culmination of his years-long campaign came on February 15 this year when the Supreme Court invalidated the electoral bonds scheme, which facilitates anonymous political contributions, declaring it unconstitutional.

"I refrain from using the term 'fight' against the electoral bonds scheme. I feel it is a campaign or a crusade. I also never use the words 'Right to Information,' I instead would like to call it ‘Request for Information.' I never give exclusives to journalists or media organisations. Whatever information I get, I share all the information with all media organisations and independent journalists. Otherwise, the documents are as good as it is with the government. So, it's very crucial to circulate them widely in the public domain for the greater good,” states Batra. 

Batra's commitment to serving the public interest predates his campaign against the electoral bonds scheme. "Even after retirement, before the RTI came in, I would actively document social injustices with my camera, reaching out to newspapers or journalists with the evidence," he recalls. "However, with the advent of RTI, the process became more streamlined and easier."

Commissioned into the Indian Navy on May 22, 1967, Batra dedicated 36 years of service to the nation in diverse roles. At a certain juncture in his career, he was designated as the Community Development Advisor to the Navy Chief, following the publication of his book titled 'Outreach: community learning and development programme; an approach to voluntary action'. His service includes active participation in the 1971 India-Pakistan war and undertaking rescue operations during natural disasters such as the super cyclone in Odisha (1999) and an earthquake in Gujarat. He also played a crucial role in reconstructing homes for the affected people in many parts of Gujarat. 

But perhaps nothing brought him as much fulfilment as his crusade against the electoral bonds. He recalls that his campaign against the electoral bonds scheme began in 2017, sparked by a speech delivered by the former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. "You could call it a holy trigger or something of that sort," he reflects. "As I listened to the then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's speech, I felt encouraged hearing him discuss transparency in electoral funding. However, my satisfaction turned to concern when he announced the introduction of electoral bonds, allowing donors to contribute to political parties anonymously. It struck me that transparency and opacity are incompatible. That realisation served as the catalyst for my activism."

What ensued was meticulous research and an abundance of RTI petitions directed towards various government departments. "Initially, the government didn't even see fit to consult the RBI regarding the electoral bonds scheme," Batra recounts. "However, when they eventually did consult, and the RBI vehemently opposed the scheme, what did the government do? They swiftly brushed aside the RBI's concerns, claiming that the RBI hadn't grasped the proposed mechanism. Moreover, they asserted that the Finance Minister's speech was already prepared, and the government was determined to proceed with the electoral bonds scheme."

Batra raises a pertinent question: how could the government proceed with the electoral bonds scheme despite opposition from both the Reserve Bank of India and the Election Commission of India? It was through his RTI responses that the public became aware of the staunch opposition voiced by both institutions against the electoral bonds scheme. The paper trail uncovered by him revealed alarming details of the government's unwavering determination to push through with the scheme, despite the dissenting voices

As he amassed document after document, another critical moment came in 2018 when Batra decided to go public. "A Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance made a statement in the Rajya Sabha on December 18, 2018, in response to a question raised by an MP regarding the government's actions on concerns raised by the Election Commission of India," he recounts. "The MoS Finance stated that the government was unaware of it. Many media outlets said that the MoS Finance lied to Parliament. I refrain from using that word ‘lied’ and instead would say he misled Parliament. This incident served as a tipping point for me when I decided to share all the documents I had collected up to that point with the media and make them available to the public."

Following the Supreme Court's declaration of the electoral bond scheme as unconstitutional and its directive to the SBI to disclose all details regarding donors and political parties who encashed the EBs, Batra diligently monitored the developments from the US. Despite the time difference, he participated in numerous Zoom interviews conducted by television and digital media journalists, staying awake during odd hours to provide interviews in Indian time. "I was determined not to let the momentum wane. This fight has spanned many years and is now reaching its climax. I wanted to engage in as many conversations and share as much information with the media as possible," he states.

Throughout the past several years, Batra has encountered threats as well. "At some point along the journey, I woke up one day to a WhatsApp message on my phone—it ominously declared that anyone who criticised Modi, the BJP, or the RSS would suffer the same fate as Gauri Lankesh. However, I remained resolute in the face of such intimidation," he asserts.

77-year-old Batra says the climax of the EB scheme could, in fact, be the beginning of something more sinister. He labels the electoral bond scheme as the largest scam in the world, highlighting that no other country has legalised such extensive corruption by manipulating rules to keep tax-paying citizens in the dark while political parties filled their coffers. Despite the Supreme Court's directive to the SBI to disclose all details without omission, Batra insists that his crusade is far from over—it may have only just begun. He believes that the paper trail, money trail, and chain of information will serve as a starting point to unveil the truth about quid pro quo deals that have taken place since the scheme was announced. According to him, the real battle has only just begun.