New Delhi: The name Laxmidas Vallabhdas Merchant, one among the top 100 donors in the electoral bonds data, wouldn’t ring a bell. But the obscurity of the name most often tells a tale.

The LinkedIn profile of Laxmidas Vallabhdas Merchant, who gave Rs 25 crore to political parties through Electoral Bonds in one go in November 2023, says he’s a Group Controller for the Reliance Group, taking care of its tax compliance regime. He is director of at least six companies linked to Reliance’s takeover of the Network18 media conglomerate.

While none of the Reliance Group’s listed companies feature on the list of donors revealed by the Election Commission on the orders of the apex court, Qwik Supply Chain Private Limited, a firm linked to the Group, emerged the third highest electoral bond donor in the country.

What made Laxmidas Vallabhdas Merchant’s electoral bond donation, in his individual capacity, possible is the devil in the electoral bond law’s fine print.

The fine print of the now-defunct scheme allowed individuals, groups of individuals, NGOs, religious and other trusts, Hindu Undivided Family units and all other entities recognised by law to do so too, without disclosing their identities.

This allowed big listed conglomerates to rope in unknown individuals, private limited companies and zero-revenue companies to donate on their behalf while keeping away from the glare of public scrutiny.

The typo-riddled document released by the Election Commission spells his name as “Laxmidas Vallabhdas Asmita Mercha”. The Reporters’ Collective compared publicly available corporate data to ascertain that Laxmidas Vallabhdas Merchant and Asmita Merchant are two people and related to each other. And that this individual Laxmidas Merchant is indeed linked to the Reliance Group.

Screengrab of the PDF released by the Election Commission.

The Collective relied on personally identifiable information to cross-check this fact. The Collective could not independently ascertain if Laxmidas is the sole donor or if the donation came from a joint account between him and Asmita Merchant.

Screengrab of Laxmidas V Merchant’s LinkedIn profile
Screengrab of a draft red herring prospectus of Manappuram Finance Limited, a Non-Banking Financial Company (NBFC) 
Screengrab of a Reliance Industries Limited document listing out employees that have been allotted Equity shares under Employee Stock Option Scheme. 

The Reliance Industries Limited also provides the same address when citing Merchant’s name as an employee holding stocks in the company, confirming that Laxmidas Merchant mentioned in the Electoral Bonds donor list is related to Asmita Merchant and is also a Reliance Group employee.

The Collective traced Laxmidas Merchant’s role in Reliance’s takeover of the Network18 media empire in July 2014. 

Reliance Group’s acquisition of the Network18 media empire involved a Reliance-backed Independent Media Trust buying 99% stake in six privately held firms. The takeover of these six companies gave the Reliance group management ownership control over Network18, from its founder Raghav Bahl.

In the same month that the trust took over Network18, Laxmidas Merchant was made a director in the six firms that gave it control over the media empire.