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Conditional State Funding of Elections
MOTHER OF ALL CHALLENGES
When India won freedom in 1947, many Western pundits professed that either democracy will die out or the country will disintegrate. Their doubts returned with every famine, upheaval or catastrophe. But we routinely overcame all our troubles and the democracy not just survived, it thrived.
A big part of our self-belief comes from the structures we built– like an ever-evolving apparatus of holding elections, our trademark federalism where centre-state relations are always frayed but never dysfunctional, a permeable multi-party system, and a decentralised Panchayati Raj. Add to this a judiciary which can rise to the occasion at trickiest of times, a diverse and down to earth legislature and a vibrant media, and you get an idea why the dance of democracy is always on despite chaos.
Elections are central to India's democratic imagination. Even ideologies are articulated as electoral devices. Secularism plays out as competitive sectarianism and appeasement becomes a code word for voter polarisation. Economic reforms are rolled out with one eye on vote mobilisation and a policy is deemed good if 'approved' at the hustings. For instance, the Congress-led UPA claimed that its electoral victory in 2009 was a ratification of the controversial Indo-US nuclear deal while BJP sees its conquest of UP as an endorsement of demonetisation. But the elections are not the only test of policies. An effective system also needs rights-based citizenship, rule of law and participatory governance though it is equally true that all other building blocks of democracy rest on the foundation of free and fair elections.
And that brings us to our biggest challenge today: that excessive use of money and muscle power is undermining democracy. Candidates with criminal charges are three times more likely to win elections than others, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). No wonder, most party bosses prefer winnable (read rich and powerful) candidates over meritorious ones converting elections into a shrewd business investment. All this leads to a sense of injustice among the masses causing more alienation and discontentment.
India's debate about the hijack of the electoral system has three interrelated components, (a) tinkering with electoral logistics and campaign procedures, (b) criminalisation of politics, and (c) dubious election funding. Out of these, the first two are tough but not intractable for institutions like the judiciary and the administrative machinery. But the most baffling issue is of election funding which keeps weighing the democracy down with every successive election.
On the first issue of logistics and campaigns, the EC has been coming down heavily on those buying votes or indulging in hate speech. The EC action on extravagance or its warnings on hate speech have worked to some extent but the screws can be tightened further by disqualifying candidates in extreme cases. On EVMS, the biggest of logistical issues, the occurrence of a grand conspiracy is unlikely albeit not impossible. Had it been so, the BJP would not have lost Bihar or Congress would not have won Punjab. The EC is in the best position to dispel the doubts by adopting new techniques like the voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) with additional expenditure for which a demand has already been placed.
On the second issue of criminalisation of politics, a Common Cause PIL has secured a landmark judgment that mandates completion of criminal trials against legislators within one year of framing of charges. Unfortunately, the order exists only on paper. A proper implementation by all courts, leading to fast conviction and disqualification, can keep at least the convicted criminals out. The Supreme Court order in the case about former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's disproportionate assets has come as a shock for many because by abating the charges on her death, the court could have allowed her inheritors to enjoy the ill-gotten wealth forever. It is a rational belief that in matters like these, the judiciary is expected to play a vital role simply because the political parties are compromised in this particular area.
What may work better on political parties, perhaps, is a combination of adverse public opinion affecting electoral prospects and punitive action going up to disqualification. For instance, if the UPA was concerned about public opinion it would not have escorted six MPs from jails to parliament in order to save the Indo-US nuclear accord and perhaps the government. Between them, they were facing dozens of serious charges of murder, extortion, kidnapping and more. Similarly, if the ruling BJP had the fear of adverse publicity in UP, it would not have picked 45 per cent (20) of its ministers who are facing criminal charges, according to ADR figures.
The third issue of electoral funding is the hardest to tackle but has widest ramifications. The mainstream parties spend thousands of crores on every major election, and much of this in black money. The power to fund elections gives an infinite leeway to corporates over politically influential parties and, more importantly, a control over national policies. This is downright tragic because it diverts our common resources for the benefit of some. The dominance of money weakens the economy by promoting cronyism, denies a level playing field to genuine players, and legitimises black economy. It makes politics unviable for honest citizens and threatens to convert India's genuine, if chaotic, dance of democracy into a sponsored spoof.
The only workable alternative of corporate stranglehold is state funding of elections which, in real practice, is easier said than done. Its implementation is seriously problematic and can recoil on us if not implemented with clear foresight. Articles in this issue of Common Cause journal by well-known experts try to make sense of these complex themes. We also put together some insights on the use of technology and global experiments. What we know for sure is that funding all candidates for assembly or parliamentary seats would mean an expenditure of lakhs of crores every few years which India simply cannot afford.
A more viable option is to fund recognised political parties, partially and conditionally, on the basis of a variety of parameters, some of which have been discussed in this issue. The disbursement needs to be made conditional to these parties conducting internal elections at all levels and fulfilling all their obligations of transparency and accountability, along with gender and RTI compliances. A case in point is the success of the conditional cash transfer schemes like Bolsa Familia and Bolsa Escola in Brazil where families are entitled to allowances only after they send children to school and health centres regularly. The conditional schemes raise human capital and address the demand side of high dropout rates in schools, poor child health and high occurrence of child labour. If applied wisely, conditional poll funding can rein in India’s autocratic party bosses and enforce some inner party democracy in their functioning.
India may not be ready as yet for state funding of elections but the time is certainly ripe to weigh its viability in order to save democracy from the onslaught of money and muscle power. Clearly, it is not just a matter of cleaning the electoral process but also of prodding our political parties into following basic norms of internal democracy, transparency and accountability. Please write in to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any comment or suggestion to make.