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'SBI is telling an utter lie'

March 08, 2024 08:56 IST
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'Mumbai main branch (SBI headquarters) has all the data ready-made. It doesn't take even an hour to out the data from the system.'

IMAGE: A five-judge Constitution bench comprising Chief Justice Dr D Y Chandrachud, Justices Sanjiv Khanna, B R Gavai, J B Pardiwala and Manoj Misra on February 15, 2024, pronounced the electoral bond scheme as unconstitutional and ordered the State Bank of India to furnish the details of buyers and encashers of electoral bonds with the Election Commission of India by March 6, 2023.
A day before this deadline, SBI petitioned the apex court asking for 136 days to furnish these details. Photograph: ANI Photo

D Thomas Franco, former general secretary, All India Bank Officers' Federation and an employee of the State Bank of India between 1980 and 2023, knows for sure how the banking system works.

In this illuminating interview with Prasanna D Zore/, Franco explains how the electoral bonds were bought and encashed and why it doesn't need more than a few clicks for SBI to retrieve, collate and furnish this data to the Election Commission of India as ordered by the Supreme Court in its February 15, 2024 judgment and what exactly is India's largest public sector bank trying to achieve by seeking an extension of 136 days to furnish this detail to the Election Commission, which is duty bound to make this data public in the interest of transparency as mandated by India's apex court.

Do you believe that the State Bank of India doesn't have the physical as well as digital infrastructure to give the details that the Supreme Court wanted it to give to the Election Commission?

SBI is telling an utter lie. They are telling that it is in two silos and all. That is fine (so far as maintaining secrecy is concerned it is a must) but now that the Supreme Court has asked it to furnish these details then they must follow the Supreme Court's order.

How long does it take to tally the two sides?

It is just due to the pressure from the (Narendra Modi) government that they (the SBI) are trying to postpone it till the (Lok Sabha) elections.

But will it be disclosed after the elections, or after the 116 more days that the SBI has asked for from the Supreme Court after its March 6 deadline?
If the Supreme Court allows SBI the time that it needs, do you really believe SBI would come out with these details or share these details after the elections?

If they are not disclosing it (who bought electoral bonds when, and who encahsed when) now, (they will not do it) later (after the Lok Sabha elections).

It will then depend upon who comes to power and what pressure is mounted (on SBI to disclose the details about who the purchasers of electoral bonds were and who encashed them).

How exactly do these electoral bonds work? What kind of infrastructure does the State Bank of India has to store and retrieve the information regarding these electoral bonds?

There are 29 branches of the State Bank of India across India which are authorised (to issue and encash these electoral bonds). Out of these 29 I think only 19 branches have so far issued any electoral bonds.

Once you want to purchase an electoral bond, you have to go to the bank (one of these 29 authorised SBI branches). These electoral bonds cannot be purchased in lieu of cash.

You (the purchaser) have to have your (bank) account. The money will be transferred from your (the purchaser's) account (into SBI's account and then the electoral bond is issued).

So it's a transfer transaction and it is recorded in the system of the bank. The State Bank has already stated that they have upgraded the information technology systems to provide facilities to transact these bonds.

As soon as the transactions are done, it is advised (informed) to the nodal branch, which is the Mumbai main branch (the SBI headquarter).

Mumbai main branch has all the data ready-made. It doesn't take even an hour to out the data from the system. It may not be accessible to everybody.

The restriction has been that it should not be known to every employee (of the SBI) because it was supposed to be kept as a secret (till the February 15, 2024 Supreme Court order declared the electoral bond scheme unconstitutional and ordered SBI to share the details with the Election Commission of India by March 6, 2024).

The custodians (the political parties) who are holding that bond, they will know who has purchased and SBI will know who has purchased and encashed it.

Because while encashing, the political party again deposits it (the electoral bond issued by SBI) through one of its accounts and it (the serial number on these electoral bonds; each electoral bond comes with a unique and secret serial number which is printed by using invisible fluorescent ink that becomes visible by using ultraviolet light so that its identity remains unique and can be quickly retrieved) is matched by the SBI branch where this electoral bond is deposited to find out whether it is a genuine bond (if the serial number is reconciled then it is proof enough of the electoral bond being genuine) only after which is the bond encashed and money transferred into the account of that political party.

All that (the transaction records of the purchaser and the encasher) is available in the system and it does not require so much time (to retrieve and collate the transaction records).

People queue up for money outside a bank

How does SBI reconcile if the electoral bond issued by one of its 29 authorised branches is a genuine electoral bond and allows its encashment when a political party deposits it?

The SBI has a particular account in which the money (deposited by the purchaser of the electoral bond the details about which SBI gives to the buyer) has to be transferred.

You (the buyer of an electoral bond) can transfer it (money) through RTGS (real time gross settlement, a banking mechanism by which money is moved between accounts in real time), or you can issue a cheque.

So the bank (SBI) will then cash the check or accept the transfer amount in their account and issue the bond.

This (the electoral bond) is a physical paper which has a (unique) code number which can be read with an ultraviolet lamp. The buyer can go and hand it over to a political party, or the buyer can hand it over to some friend who will have connections with the political party.

Even electoral trusts which were established under an Act passed by Parliament in 2013 (Electoral Trusts Scheme 2013 when UPA II was in power) are eligible to purchase these electoral bonds.

India has 18 such electoral trusts as and the biggest among them is the Prudential Electoral Trust (external link).

They (the electoral trusts) collect it and they go and negotiate with the political parties that we are getting this much of amount. And naturally, to get some favour from the party, these bonds are used.

What are those few simple processes or few simple steps that the SBI would need to initiate to retrieve the data about the buyers and encashers of electoral bonds along with the date when they were issued, deposited and encashed?
There is buzz on social media that retrieving these transactions and collating them systematically is too easy a task. Would you believe that?

It's just a click of a button.

The Mumbai branch (SBI headquarters) is already dealing with all the other (authorised) branches. So it has the data in its system. It takes only few minutes for you to (collate this data).

The SBI is saying that they have kept it (the transaction records of buyers and encashers) in different silos. That is, one silo will be for issue (of electoral bonds) and one will be for encashment (of electoral bonds).

Take out both the lists, reconcile them using the unique serial codes and you will have all the records about who bought when, and which political party encashed the electoral bond when. You will also know how many bonds have still not been encashed.

What are the chances that the State Bank of India could delete this data? What are the chances there could be a whistleblower who blows the lid off these details and makes these details public even if SBI hesitates to do so?

No whistleblower will have access to this data. No whistleblower.

Somebody who has access to these data would never do that because the employees have signed an oath while joining the service that they will not hand over any of the (sensitive or material) data to anybody.

How justified would be fears that the SBI could delete the data?

They cannot. They should not and they cannot.

What are the safeguards against this?

See, number one, all this is also known to the Reserve Bank of India, which prints these bonds. There will be reports (about these electoral bonds); there will be annual audit statements (mandatory for a listed company).

Even if you delete it in one system, it will be available in the other report.

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India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024