In the recently concluded elections newspapers reported from almost all parts of India about crores of Rupees worth of cash, gold or liquor being seized on a daily basis. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, where elections were held both for Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas of Telengana and Seemandhra, it was reported on 17th April that 103 crores worth of cash, 70 Kg of gold and 300 kg of silver were seized. In Andhra alone, till that date, 3.76lakh litres of liquor had already been seized since the beginning of the campaign. The all India figure stood at 790 lakh litres! Even the dry state of Gujarat is reported to have its share of liquor seizure.
All this is not new but it gives an indication of how money plays a role in the Indian elections. The official limit on campaign expenditure for each candidate has been increased to Rs. 70 lakhs. Thus a party which wants to field candidates from all constituencies and fully utilizing the expenditure limit will require at least 378 crore Rupees. However, it is a known fact that parties that form government spend far in excess of this amount. Congress Party which has been estimated to spend in excess of 1000 crore Rupees for the 16thLok Sabha elections is said to be complaining that it is not able to match spending of the BJP,which is estimated to spend three times as much!
This raises many questions – Where do these funds come from? Why doelections attract such large funds? How do these funds shape the policies of the parties that come to power? How can candidates who do not have such funds but want to serve, say, the interest of workers and peasants compete with the candidates who spend such funds? Is there level playing field for all candidates who want to faithfully represent their constituencies? And so on.
The answers to these questions are not difficult to see. Obviously, funds come from those who have access to such funds. For example major capitalist houses have foundations such asthe Tata group which funds, “the Electoral Trust,” that is supposed to automatically disburse fundsto parties that are represented in the parliament. At regional level, there are smaller bourgeois houses that fund elections of different parties. A large part of election funding is known to be coming from scams, hawala and other “black” sources of money.
By and large, no one parts with their wealth without an expectationof a good return. The parties that accept large donations from capitalist groups and other vested interested groups, have to pay back when they come to power. Payback typically happens by adoption of policies that favour the donor interests. It may happen by direct subsidy to donor interests or by strengthening of donor position viz a viz its competitors.
Even the more transparent policy like the policy of the Electoral Trust of disbursing funds using cheques with funds going to the parties in proportion to the number of their members in the out-going and in-coming parliament, serve the same purpose. It is well known that many of the important economic decisions are taken by the out-going government just before relinquishing power and the new government also takes some new initiatives. The Electoral Trust funding policy covers Tata group of companies’ interest in both sets of policy decisions. The leaked Radia tapes had also exposed how Mr. Ratan Tata was able to prevent Dayanidhi Maran from becoming the Telecom Minister and was able to get his choice of A. Raja for this cabinet post in the UPA-II government.
The biggest donor to the General Electoral Trust has been the Hindalco of the Aditya Birla group and the biggest donor to the Electoral Trust has been reported to be Tata Power of the Tata group of companies. It is worth keeping in mind that the Tata Power has been named by the CAG in the Coal block allocation scam. It is also worth noting that Birla group’s the General Electoral Trust disburses funds only in those constituencies where it has its business operations indicating close relationship between funding and wielding political influence.
What is absolutely clear is that role of large funds for elections by corporate and other vested interests goes against those parties and candidates who want to uphold the interest of the majority of the people – workers, peasants, women and youth. With meager resources, and increasingly difficult conditions of campaigning created in the name of electoral reforms, these parties and candidates are not able to compete with the candidates of the well endowed parties.
What kind of democracy do we want? If we believe that democracy should protect the interest of the majority of people who are willing to do an honest day’s work to earn their living, then the elected representatives must be responsive to the need of the majority of people. We want such representatives who remain answerable to their constituencies and not those whoare obligated to big funders and have to say one thing and so something altogether different to push their hidden agenda. It cannot be said either that people with a lot of money work in the general interest of society. In fact, quite the contrary is generallytrue.
If the role of money has to be weeded out of the electoral process then naturally the process should be such that the amount of funds available to a candidate or his or her party should not matter in the elections. The only way this can be achieved is if the entire electoral process were funded by the state without discrimination or favour to any candidate.
It is not at all difficult to conceive of such an electoral system.
One way, itcould be accomplished if all candidates are prevented from spending any money in the elections and all parties are also prevented from spending money for any particular candidate but are allowed only to do propaganda about their vision for the solutions to society’s problems. The Election Commission and its local elected organ at the level of the constituency (let us call this a Constituency Committee) must be charged with the responsibility to ensure that all the candidates get equal opportunity to propagate their vision,explain their program and make pledgesto the citizens through the mass media or pamphlet distribution. It must also be charged with the responsibility for organising meetings with voters to answer their queries, and listen to their criticism and concerns. The State and the Election Commission in its new democratic avatar will have to stop favouring selected parties through registration, symbol allotment and such other devices. Its task of monitoring expenses will gets hugely simplified since there will be no need to submit expenses by any candidate.
Such a system would level the electoral arena and enable fair playing field for all candidates, whether they be rich or poor, whether they belong to big parties or small,or even if they did not belong to any political party. People will be able to elect theirrepresentative and call him to account for his activities in the assemblies or parliament. Through their representation they will be able to propose legislations that will be in their interest or seek amendments to laws. The elected representative would be expected to hold regular public consultative meetings before and after each session of the house. If some representative appears not to stand true to his or her promises and program, people will also be able to recall such a candidate through their constituency committees.
Let us innovate a genuinely democratic system in India and make our contribution to the renewal of the democratic process in the world.
By Prof Bharat Seth