Indian politics roiled as disclosure of “electoral bonds” reveals campaign donors

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NEW DELHI — Mahendra Kumar Jalan was an Indian millionaire with a diversified portfolio of food processing plants, dairy farms and commercial real estate. As he faced scrutiny from the Indian government’s financial crimes investigators in 2019, he began to put money in something else.

Jalan’s companies confidentially donated millions to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, newly released records show. Jalan eventually gifted a total of $42 million to the BJP while he was under federal investigation.

Jalan’s case was one of many subplots that have burst into public view and roiled Indian politics and business after the Indian Supreme Court forced a state-owned bank to disclose the buyers and recipients of “electoral bonds,” an arrangement introduced in 2017 that allowed companies to give unlimited campaign contributions under a cloak of confidentiality.

The resulting data dump has provided a rare glimpse into the machinery of Indian politics, revealing how $2 billion have been secretly funneled by Indian companies into political parties since 2018, with roughly half going toward the ruling BJP. And the disclosures have caused a public furor just weeks before the country votes in a national election that political scientists predict could be the world’s most expensive, at a cost of $15 billion, outstripping even the expected price tag of the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

In many instances, the records show, Indian companies gave donations just as they received major government contracts — a familiar practice around the world. But there was a more striking pattern: Almost half of the top 30 corporate donors were facing government investigations around the time they purchased electoral bonds. The unsettling conclusion reached by Indian political observers is that either Indian business titans have been regularly seeking to bribe their way out of trouble — or the BJP-controlled government has been using investigative agencies to extort them.

Neelanjan Sircar, an expert on Indian politics at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, said Indian political parties have been known for decades to “weaponize their enforcement and policing capabilities.”

“Where things have changed in the last 10 years is that the tools of repression and harassment through financial investigations has strengthened,” he said. “Even if quid quo pro cannot be proven legally, the new data is, at a minimum, consistent with the idea that money is being given by businesses to prevent further legal action by agencies under government control.”

While the BJP was hardly the only party that raked in electoral bonds, the disclosures have sharpened questions about the health of the world’s largest democracy and whether April’s elections — in which Modi is expected to clinch a third term — will be considered fair.

As the campaign season heated up in recent weeks, the Modi government has arrested several opposition leaders on graft charges and frozen large sums of money in the bank accounts of the biggest opposition party, the Indian National Congress. Now, Modi’s critics say, the recently unveiled donation data show that the ruling party holds an unfair advantage in the fundraising race.

Atishi, a minister of the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that rules New Delhi and Punjab state, likened the campaign contributions to “protection money.”

“It’s like a 1980s Bollywood movie where the Bombay don sends his street goons to say, ‘You pay us and nothing will happen to you,’” said Atishi, who goes by one name. “Elections were designed so that no ruling party could exercise its existing authority to keep winning elections, but this framework is being dismantled piece by piece.”

Of the $1.5 billion in electoral bonds purchased between April 2019 and this January, the BJP received $728 million, exceeding what the next seven parties received combined. Its overall financial advantage is expected to be even larger, because the electoral bonds account for just a fraction of total campaign financing, with far more coming in the form of cash.

The mounting criticism has forced the BJP, which usually banks on Modi’s clean and business-friendly image, to respond. At a campaign rally, Modi said he remained committed to rooting out corruption and his investigative agencies were pursuing cases without ulterior motives.

“If the opposition feels we are misusing central agencies, they should go to the courts instead of crying foul in front of the media,” BJP spokeswoman Shazia Ilmi told The Washington Post. “We are the biggest party in the country, so it is obvious why more people bet on us.”

To be sure, corruption has been endemic in Indian politics long before Modi rose to power in 2014. In 2017, Modi’s finance minister Arun Jaitley proposed the electoral bond plan in response to the influx of untraceable cash in elections. But a group of concerned citizens calling themselves the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), along with Common Cause India and a communist party, filed lawsuits that year challenging it, arguing that anonymous bonds would in fact degrade political transparency, not improve it. This January, the Supreme Court sided with them and ordered the transaction details revealed.

Jagdeep Chhokar, a retired management professor who is part of ADR, called for an independent investigation into how money and favors have been traded in recent years. “Quid quo pro is frowned upon in most countries,” he said. “But in India, it had been given a cloak of legality. Now, that has come off.”

Already, Indian political researchers and journalists in recent days have uncovered a long list of what they call questionable donations that implicated not just the BJP but many of its rival parties, and involved energy tycoons and telecom conglomerates, engineering firms and a “lottery king.”

There was Sarath Chandra Reddy, a pharmaceutical businessman who was accused by federal investigators in 2022 of bribing the AAP in exchange for liquor licenses. Days after Reddy was taken into custody, donation records showed, he bought the first tranche of $6.6 million in bonds that he would eventually gift the BJP.

Reddy was later pardoned. He became the star witness in the Modi government’s case against the AAP, paving the way for the arrest of several AAP leaders. Arvind Kejriwal, a key opposition figure, was jailed last week just as he was preparing to hit the campaign trail. Deepti Kshatri, a spokeswoman for Reddy’s company Aurobindo Pharma, did not respond to requests for comment.

Other major political donors have included Qwik Supply Chain, an obscure Mumbai firm that shared key personnel and email addresses with the Reliance conglomerate owned by Asia’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. Qwik reported little profit in its quarterly reports but donated $50 million to the BJP, records show. A Reliance spokesman said Qwik is “not a subsidiary of any Reliance entity” but did not answer questions about the conglomerate’s relationship with the donor firm.

Underscoring how widespread the financing practice had become, the top purchaser of electoral bonds turned out to be a gambling mogul based in Tamil Nadu state who lavished money not on BJP, but on its smaller rivals. Santiago “Lottery King” Martin, who has faced charges of bribery, fraud and land seizure in multiple states, gave $60 million each to the Trinamool Congress party in West Bengal and Martin’s local Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, and just $12 million to Modi’s party. Martin’s corporate secretary did not respond to requests for comment.

Finally, there was Jalan, who turned a modest steel trading business into a sprawling conglomerate that included eastern India’s top dairy company. The businessman was well-known in Kolkata for his 11th-floor penthouse — featuring a 4,700-square-foot rooftop garden with bonsai trees and cactuses — and his proximity to the local Trinamool Congress. But in 2019, after he came under official scrutiny for alleged money laundering, he started giving generously and became the BJP’s bigger donor of electoral bonds during that year’s national election.

Suparna Mucadum, a spokesperson for Jalan’s Keventer Group, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Karishma Mehrotra contributed to this report.

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