Statement of Lok Raj Sangathan, Jan 14, 2017
During the current demonetisation drive state funding of polls has again come on the agenda of general political discourse in the country. Will the demonetisation of 500 and 1000 rupee notes have any impact on the blatant use of money power in elections? Will the proposal of the Election Commission to the government to ban anonymous contributions of Rs. 2,000 and above made to political parties curb the use of black money during polls? Under the current law, contributions of up to Rs. 20,000 do not have to be accompanied by details of the giver.
Far from enabling a level playing field for political parties, organisations and individuals to participate and contest elections, the barrage of proposals being made by the government, Central Election Commission (CEC) and the Law Commission are aimed at strengthening the domination of the “mainstream parties” who are financed by the rich and the powerful economic interests, over the political and electoral process. The solutions offered do not help the cause of the people at large. Let us examine some of the proposals in detail:
A decades-old law exempts political parties from taxes on income generated from a group of sources including donations from volunteers. The CEC has proposed that exemption of Income Tax should only be extended to political parties that contest elections and win seats in Lok Sabha or assembly polls. That means making the political process even more favorable to those who are financed by the rich. There are many people, organizations and parties who are fighting against the same monopoly houses and MNCs who fund these so called “main stream parties” – such people, organizations and parties are totally marginalized in the current system and that is why they have no way to win elections.
It must be noted that contrary to the general perception being created, all political parties are not responsible for corruption and criminalization of politics. By talking about the need for political parties to set a good example, the CEC has glossed over the fact that the source of corruption and criminalization in politics are the big monopoly houses and multinationals which fund political parties of their choice during elections, use the media under their control to sway public opinion in favour of parties of their choice and bring that party to power whom they consider as the best in the given situation to manage their affairs.
This is what happened during the 2014 parliamentary elections when the incumbent Congress regime was systematically discredited through exposure of corruption scandals, and BJP propped up as the only alternative, and brought to power with Modi at the head, to form the government at the Centre.
On the other hand, there are hundreds of political parties and organizations which represent different sections of people and who participate in elections with all their might and energy with an aim to change the current state of affairs whereby the rich and the powerful install the party of their choice in power. By condemning all political parties as encouraging criminalization and corruption in politics, the CEC is being unfair to the thousands of social and political activists engaged in efforts to change the political process so that ordinary people are empowered and have a say in the functioning of the current “democracy”. It goes without saying that ordinary working people will not be able to participate in the elections (except as voters) and win, unless and until the role of money and muscle power in elections is not done away with.
It is a fact that more and more enforcement and regulations have been foisted on political parties in recent years. But these have not been able to curb the sway of money power during elections. The trend has been the opposite. The stakes have become larger and larger during successive elections. So much so that a survey done by Centre for Media Studies reported that the quantum of money spent during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was next only to the US elections. The bulk of the money was spent by the Congress and BJP. While increased enforcement and regulations have made little impact on parties of the powerful, these new mandatory requirements imposed by CEC have become unbearable on smaller parties and individual contestants who have to open a bank account, submit expenditure statements and file income tax returns, etc.. These regulations have effectively kept many smaller parties and individuals out of the election arena.
Recently, the EC delisted 255 political parties, which had not contested any local or national elections since 2005. According to the EC, it had delisted parties using special powers, and the same could be subject to litigation. Section 29A of the Representation of the Peoples Act, 1951, empowers EC to register associations and bodies as political parties. However, there is no constitutional or statutory provision that empowers the EC to de-register political parties. The Law Commission has endorsed this proposal. The justification being given for such additional powers is that many political parties are created for converting black money to white! This attack on delisted parties has not been supported by any evidence or analysis.
While it is the biggest parties of the establishment that have used unbridled money power to win elections using contributions from big monopoly houses in return for favours, all the abuse is being heaped at parties representing sections of workers, peasants and others for the increasing loss of credibility of the current electoral system. The fact is that so called “main stream parties” who manipulate the political system, are responsible for depoliticizing people and discrediting “democracy” since during elections they make all kinds of promises to the people but when in power, only serve the interests of those who have financed them – the rich and the powerful vested interests.
There is no way ordinary people who wish to serve the interests of people, can match the funding provided to these parties of the rich, and win elections.
Similarly, the proposal of the CEC that the state should fund political parties according to their size or votes gathered is an attempt to again strengthen the domination of the parties of the rich over the electoral process.
There is, however, a way out. If instead of the state, funding political parties, it funds the electoral process, in which candidates are not selected by political parties but by the people of that particular constituency, then money power can be put to an end to and elections can be made free and fair.
Political parties should be funded solely by its members and not by the state treasury. The raison d’etre of a political party should be to educate the people about the political process, to organise and assist them in governance and decision-making. Their role should be to empower the people and not to seek power in their own hands. If the role of political parties is thus redefined and mandated by law, then there would be no need for them to build reserves of funds to meet election expenses. An ordinary citizen would be able to participate and win in elections, depending on his program, his track record and the respect and the trust he/she commands in his/her constituency.
Selection of candidates and the right to recall are important rights of the electors that should be guaranteed in any electoral law. Without these rights, people do not have any control over their representatives and cannot recall them if they do not fulfil their mandate. People can be deemed to be truly enfranchised only when the electoral law clearly specifies mechanisms for selection of candidates by the people and control over those they have elected, including the right to recall.
Once the right to select and elect candidates of their choice is with the people, it is only the next logical step to demand that the state should fund not individual political parties, but the electoral process that enables people to select, elect and recall their candidates. The Representation of the People Act should then empower non-partisan constituency committees, established by an electoral commission, to ensure that all the candidates have level playing field and the candidates who win the elections remain accountable to the people who elected them, all through their tenure. The representative can be recalled immediately if he/she has lost the trust of the very people who had elected him/her by his/her conduct.
The election process can be a simple one. The electoral commission, through the constituency committee, will ensure equal opportunity for all candidates to present their views, irrespective of whether they are party nominated candidates or candidates nominated by different people’s organisations or directly by people at a mass meeting of the constituency committee. No candidate or their party will be allowed to spend any money on propaganda. The state will bear all election expenditures. The distribution of liquor and biryani to the men and saris and grinders to the women on poll day by political parties canvassing their support will be totally eliminated.
To sum up, the increased enforcement and regulations brought out in last few decades have made little impact on parties of the powerful. They have adversely impacted the smaller parties and individual contestants, putting them at massive disadvantage vis-à-vis the parties funded by the big monopolies. The proposals currently being made including that for state funding of elections fails to address the problem, ignore the root of corruption and blame the smaller parties and individual contestants putting them at further disadvantage.
The present electoral law favours the party-dominated electoral process, and the privileged position of a handful of parties who act as special interest groups for big business houses or other wealthy sections of the population, marginalising people from the political and electoral process, and disempowering them. This law should be amended to make way for a people-centred electoral process,that ensures their participation not only as a voter, but as an active participants in selection, and election of candidates and empowers them to bring them to account through right to recall.
The state should not fund parties or candidates. Instead the resources of the state including the financial resources, must be used to make the electoral process more participative, giving equal opportunity to all the contestants to canvass their programme. It must be used to set up mechanisms to monitor the performance of those elected, and calling them to account. The state must fund the electoral process. This along with the prevention of funding of political parties by vested interests are some essential steps in this direction. There must be nationwide discussion on electoral reforms needed to empower people and all parties, people’s organisations, trade unions, farmers organisations, women’s and youth organisations must be involved in this debate.