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Political Corruption and Electoral Reforms

Human weakness for riches and wealth is not vey uncommon and many a times it overcomes our moral and ethical values and is the progeny of the temptation to amass unaccounted and unexpected wealth. The most plaguing problems of administration and commercial dealings arise when people engaged in it are made to compromise their duties and responsibilities by bribing them. However, when this phenomenon interferes with the election process for electing a popular government on the basis of free and fair election by the electorate, it becomes a matter of serious concern. In a representative democracy, the model followed by India, elections are the only method through which the people’s representatives may be elected to the legislature and provide to the country the political executive or the Council of Ministers to rule the country duly supported by the rein checks of the opposition.  The election process therefore assumes vital importance in the progress of the country.  The responsibility to ensure the purity and impartiality of the electoral process is not only of the government, the Election Commission and the political parties but also of every individual and institution and the media as the fourth pillar of this democracy.

We look at our country with esteem as the world’s largest democracy. But if we have to uphold the health of our democratic polity we must curb the growing influence of money and muscle power in our elections. It is no more a secret that money power wins over elections. The ‘National Election Watch’ a coalition of 1,200 civil society organizations working across the country has come out with a perceptive and incisive analysis of the 15th Lok Sabha.  It has emphasised on the role which money has played during the elections. P. Sainath in an article has highlighted these facts:

1. If you are worth Rs.50 million, you are 75 times more likely to win the elections to the Lok Sabha than if you are worth under Rs.1 million.
2. Twenty three out of 64 cabinet ministers’ assets fall in the Rs.50 million plus category.
3. The 543 MPs of the current Lok Sabha are worth Rs.80 billion.
Time and again different Chief Election Commissioners in India have aired their concern that that Election Commission has been able to contain the role of muscle power in elections but it could do nothing to contain the role of money power in elections.

It will be relevant to cite here one of the studies done by CMS in 2009. One of such studies and research by CMS has revealed a disturbing phenomenon about money power controlling the election process. According to this survey by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), it estimated that last Lok Sabha elections would have had an outlay of 100 billion rupees (two billion dollars). Of that total, about 20 billion rupees will be spent by the national Election Commission and state government on organizing the actual polling, which will be held in many stages and requires a mammoth security operation. The rest would have been spent by official parties and individual candidates, with the CMS estimating that as much as 20 billion rupees was earmarked for “unofficial” cash purchases of individual votes on the event of balloting.

A citizen group consisting of eminent media personalities like Mr. Prabhash Joshi and others observed the media trends during the General Elections 2009 and expressed deep concern about the blatant misuse of print and electronic media by political parties and candidates   and also about the media which allowed itself to be abused by them. The group deplored that the distinction between news, views and political campaigning or advertisement is no longer clear.  We have seen rise in the ‘paid news syndrome’ and unaccounted money spent on it.

How money power became primary mover for elections in India?
Influence of money in Indian elections is not a new phenomenon.  This was reported even during the Nehruvian period – golden era of Indian democracy – though such influence was much less compared to modern times.  This difference in the intensity of influence that money power has in the electoral arena today begs deeper analysis as it is basically related to the somewhat sweeping changes that have taken place in Indian politics for the last four decades.

  • Needless to say, the Nehruvian phase of Indian politics was noted for the following features: unquestioned and charismatic leadership of Nehru within the Congress and the electoral dominance the party enjoyed both in the national and state politics. It is true that there was a strong deficit in political mobilization and politicization of the masses during this period.  The periodic bouts of mass movements and agitations organized by the Left apart, little attempts were made by other political parties in politicizing the electorate.
  • However, things began to change drastically from the seventies onwards.  The social base of the once dominant Congress became shaky with many of the marginalized social groups – from Dalits to OBCs and Muslims – shifting their allegiance to other parties and, in certain cases, forming their own parties often based on regionalism and ethnicity. Cumulatively this came to have three significant consequences as for as Indian politics is concerned: regionalization and ‘ethnicisation’ of the party system and fragmentation of the political society leading to mushrooming of parties making political arena a highly contested domain.
  • The impact of the above on the political parties and consequently on the electoral system was drastic. The ethnification of the party system further rendered redundant the strategy of cross sectional mobilization which the Congress had been following for about three decades since independence. This made the political situation in country very volatile.
  • As the parties became weak and fragmented, their leadership emerged more powerful dispensing with every trace of inner party democracy that existed.
  • This meant that the criteria for basic decisions any party has to take, ranging from candidate selection to party platform, remained/remains either unclear or left to the discretion of one or a handful of leaders.  The implication is that moving with leaders rather than working with people became the sole criteria for electoral positions for party cadres who, therefore, shifted their activities from grassroots to party headquarters.  This naturally dried up the supply of party workers from the society, ultimately severing the linkage between parties and the mass of the people.
  • Parties, on their side, tried to make up this deficiency in popular support by entering into indiscriminate electoral alliances, invoking primordial sentiments and even roping in the support of criminal elements. This slowly came to have another important effect – depoliticizing the electoral process.
  • When ideological positions, policy preferences and public opinion hardly matter for political parties, governance automatically gets delinked from politics – politics in a democratic sense i.e., public, inclusive and proactive.  Economic liberalisation of the nineties has accelerated this process as parties – with the exception of the Left to a certain extent – belonging to various political spectrums began to converge on important questions of public policies, economic and development policies in particular.

The greatest impact of this on elections is that they have ceased to be a contest of ideas and public policies.  And when elections are drained of their political content, parties have to look for alternative means to gain popular votes.  All these prepare the fertile ground for electoral mal-practices of which influence of money is an important one.  With the help of money, elections are turned into a great spectacle and the electoral arena converted into a big market space where money mediates between the candidates and the electorate.

Extent of Money Power Involved
Influence of money in elections is not merely confined to overspending and/or purchasing of votes by parties/candidates.  Neither is such influence indirect any more.  It is now direct as crorepatis and corporate interests are becoming representatives themselves.  They are no longer content with influencing public policies sitting outside the Houses, but want to call shots and define the contours of state action by being part of the political processes.  This has drastically altered the social composition – particularly the class character – of the Parliament as well.

  • Electoral spending has mounted to such a level that it makes a mockery of all the existing laws.  It is stated that on an average a candidate spends anywhere between three to fifteen crore rupees in a single Lok Sabha constituency. According to a very conservative estimate, in the 2009 general elections to the Lower House of the Parliament, Congress Party has officially spent Rs. 1500 crore, BJP Rs. 1000 crore; BSP and NCP Rs. 700 core each; DMK Rs. 400 core and AIADMK rupees 300 core. It is common knowledge that a portion of this money has gone to the purchase of votes.  The survey conducted in 2009 by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), is revealing in this respect.  According to it, nearly one-fifth of the voters across the country had stated that candidates or party workers offered them money to vote in the past decade.
  • Change in the economic profile of the Members of Lok Sabha also makes interesting reading as it shows the extent to which and the manner in which money power is creeping into the House. Percentage of increase in the total assets of the members between the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Houses is 186.01 i.e., it jumped from Rs.1273.07 lakh in the Fourteenth House to Rs.3641.30 lakh in the Fifteenth House. Interestingly, this is the highest for regional/state political parties.
  • There is a growing presence of businessman and people from corporate lobby in the parliament in these years indicating the possible shifts that it may cause in the important policy designs of this country.

 

Writing on the wall is thus clear: there is a growing gap between the representatives and the represented in terms of their class position; the assets of political parties and their income from sources other than membership collection is spiraling; and both the candidates and parties are spending huge sums during elections than they are legally permitted.  The million dollar question here is the source from where these colossal sums come.  No doubt they come from corporate contributions and corruption.  Though for the former we don’t have any systematic account, the ever increasing instances of corruption scandals involving politicians throw some vague hints at the latter.

Interestingly, paradoxically too, all these changes are rapidly taking place when the electoral participation of the subaltern groups has increased significantly and the consequent expansion of democracy has enabled them to gain access to political power. The elite sections of various hues and shades have now invented new means to perpetuate their monopoly of political power and even to expand it.  As a result, the electoral process is ceasing to be a reflection of the will of the people, or even the will of the political parties on whom the outcome of elections is supposed to rest. This also means that the system of representation which is the chief instrument of social transformation – a model with which the country has started – is facing severe crisis. This is simultaneously a crisis of representation and that of governance, in a sense a crisis of democracy itself.  As such, unless this issue is squarely addressed, democracy cannot become meaningful.

Solutions and conclusion
Many solutions are offered by various studies for preventing the influence of money in elections. Some of them have been implemented and on many no decision has been made. This ranges from state funding of elections, declaration of assets by candidates, putting a cap on election spending, to auditing the source and amount of funding of parties and their expenditure, both during elections and after.  A case is also made for including the money spent by parties for campaign purposes in the electoral expenditure of the respective candidates.

  • In 1998, the Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections backed the idea of state funded elections stating that it saw “full justification, constitutional, legal as well as on grounds of public interest, for a grant of state subvention to political parties so as to establish such conditions where even the parties with the modest financial resources may be able to compete with those who have superior financial resources”. Such proposals would involve the Election Commission or any other state body giving each party requisite fund to run day-to-day services and election campaigns in the country. Across the world, such measures were first introduced by West Germany in 1959 and today over 75 countries, including more than 90% of the European Union have provisions for state funded elections. According to the Election Commission in India, however, such a proposal may be futile, as to address the real issues, radical changes are required in the laws regarding receipts of funds by political parties and the manner in which they spend such funds.
  • The Indian Electoral Law, under Section 77 of the Representation of People’s Act (RPA), 1951, requires that all candidates should disclose the correct account of all the expenditure incurred in connection with the elections and that they are bound to submit the accounts between the day on which they have been nominated for election and the day of declaration of the result thereof. In 1999, Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by Association of Democratic Reforms with Delhi High Court asking for the disclosure of the criminal, financial and educational background of the candidates contesting elections. Based on this, the Supreme Court in 2002, and subsequently in 2003, made it mandatory for all candidates contesting elections to disclose criminal, financial and educational background prior to the polls by filing an affidavit with the Election Commission.
  •  Section 123(6) of the Act defines incurring of excessive expenditure in elections as a corrupt practice. It also lays down a limit on expenditure on elections. The maximum amount of election expenditure, which may be incurred by the candidate in the various states, has been laid down under Rule 90 of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961. In addition, failure to furnish an account of election expenses within the time limit prescribed under Section 77(6) of the Act 1951 can lead to disqualification of membership to the parliament or state legislature. The Supreme Court in many cases had occasions to deal with the question, as to whether expenses incurred by a political party or a candidate falls within Section 123 clause 6, read with Section 77 of the RPA, 1951. The Supreme Court in the famous Kanwarlal Gupta vs Amarnath Chawla (1975 (3) SCC 646) case expressed the view that the expenses incurred by a political party should be included in the candidate’s election expenditure. As fallout of the Supreme Court judgment in the above-mentioned case, the RPA was amended, so as to nullify the 1975 Supreme Court judgment. Explanation 1 to Section 77 of the RPA was appended, by which, unauthorised party and supporter expenditure in support of the candidate did not count in election expenses incurred by a candidate, for the purpose of ceiling, making the limit an exercise in futility.
  • In 1992 Election Commission in its proposal submitted to Government of India suggested strongly that every political party should publish its annual account and EC should be allowed to audit it. No further action has been taken in this regard.
  • In the realm of corporate financing, the Indian Companies Act prior to 1969 did not make any specific provision for donation by companies, but in 1969 a law was brought into force, banning any company contribution to the election arena. Later, Section 293, an amendment brought about in 1985, permitted companies to make contributions to charitable and other funds up to 5 per cent of their average profit of the three previous years. This amendment, brought in with the view of curbing the parallel practice of black marketing in the business-politics nexus (rampant in the era of briefcase politics), has in fact turned volte-face and has been replaced by a lack of transparency and nepotism.

 

However, according to many political scientists, apart from these administrative and legal measures the most important thing to do is counter the seeping de-politicization (which is one of the main causes of many ills of electoral system acoording to them) through politicization of a different kind. .  People have to be continuously mobilized politically around their quotidian concerns by the political society–political parties, trade unions and even civil society organizations. Our main agenda and target should be to transcend from the idea of representation to the idea of participation.