Electoral bonds: Dhruv Rathee and the art of cutting through clutter

At barely 30, YouTuber, vlogger and activist Dhruv Rathee made it to the TIME magazine's list of ‘Next Generation Leaders’ last year

File photo from 2019 of (from left) Congress MPs Karti Chidambaram, Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari protesting against electoral bonds in New Delhi
File photo from 2019 of (from left) Congress MPs Karti Chidambaram, Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari protesting against electoral bonds in New Delhi

A.J. Prabal

He likes breaking down complex stories, is arguably India’s most popular YouTuber, has around 19 million subscribers across channels, and over 4 billion total video views. Now, Dhruv Rathee's latest video on the electoral bond scheme released on Sunday, 24 March has already been viewed more than 5 million times.

We say 'once again' because last month, Rathee's video on the Chandigarh mayoral election and farmers' protests spread similarly far and wide, and has racked up 22 million-plus views till date. Titled 'Is India Becoming a Dictatorship?', the video was obviously not just about the mayoral poll.

In his latest video, in a span of 23 minutes, Rathee explains the scam brutally, simply and clinically, something that India's opposition parties have not quite succeeded in doing yet — not least because the ‘Modi media’ has shown little or no interest in exposing the scam.

Rathee has the knack of cutting through clutter. He starts this video by acknowledging that giving or accepting donations is not a crime. If, however, donations are extracted through coercion, he points out, they no longer remain donations but are better identified as extortion. When donations are extorted by threatening companies with punitive action by Central agencies, they become both a crime and a scam, he adds.

He then explains that buyers of the electoral bonds, corporate bodies and business houses, got away by ‘stealing’ public money through tax evasion. Before 2017, only 7 per cent of the average net profit of a company over the previous three years could be donated to political parties, and the company could claim tax exemption on the amount.

By allowing companies to donate unlimited amounts, the scheme actually robbed the exchequer of tax revenue, which could be used for public welfare and to improve educational and health facilities.

The video does not say this, but there are other ways in which the scheme turned Indian people and tax payers into losers. Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) ferreted out the information that it was the Government of India, not the buyers of electoral bonds, which paid State Bank of India the charge for servicing the bonds. The government also paid for the printing of the bonds, out of public funds, of course.

Rathee also deftly calls the BJP’s bluff; while BJP leaders have been busy claiming innocence by pointing out that the Opposition also received donations through electoral bonds, Rathee points out that it was only the BJP government at the Centre which could provide immunity from agencies like Income Tax, ED and CBI. It was, again, the Union government which could grant lucrative contracts for huge infrastructure projects.

It was the people’s money, he emphasises, that was given away by the BJP government to the donors. Why would companies buy bonds worth several hundred crores and donate to political parties?

As answer, Rathee cites the example of the Kaleshwaram irrigation project in Telangana-Andhra Pradesh at an estimated cost of Rs 81,000 crore. The cost, however, soon escalated to Rs 1.37 lakh crore, with ordinary tax payers paying for a flawed project report and resulting cost escalation.

Rathee trains his gun on just three companies — the Oreva Group which built and maintained the bridge in Morbi (Gujarat) which collapsed, the Pune-based BG Shirke Construction Group, and Hyderabad-based Megha Engineering — to make his point.

All three companies, despite their dubious record, were awarded lucrative projects to complete. Enormous amounts of public money were pledged to these relatively small entities instead of bigger and better ones, including some in the public sector, in lieu of which they bought electoral bonds worth several hundred crores.

Rathee also calls out Union home minister Amit Shah’s ‘lies’. At an India Today conclave earlier this month, Shah claimed that electoral bonds worth Rs 20,000 crore were sold by SBI, of which the BJP received bonds worth just Rs 6,000 crore, with the remaining funds going to other parties.

The home minister was wrong. From 2018 to 2024, bonds worth Rs 16,500 crore were sold by SBI, but because the Supreme Court had directed the SBI to disclose figures from April 2019 onward, it disclosed a total figure of around Rs 12,000 crore, with nearly half of it going to the BJP. In the period before April 2019, over 90 per cent of donations went to the BJP, according to disclosures made by parties to the Election Commission of India.

Rathee has promised to return with yet another video on the electoral bonds, when he will no doubt deconstruct for the lay viewer the other insidious aspects of the scheme.

Why, for example, would a loss-making company buy electoral bonds worth Rs 100 crore? Why would a company with a net profit of just Rs 18 crore buy electoral bonds worth several hundreds of crores? Why was an accused in the Delhi excise case investigated by ED granted bail, and promptly bought bonds worth Rs 60 crore to donate to the BJP?

With the SBI disclosing the hidden numbers on the EBs (visible only under UV rays) on 21 March, several civil society groups are busy poring over the details; and more dirt is likely to hit the ceiling soon.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines