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Use Of Infotech In Transparency
ICT AND INDIAN ELECTIONS
Gurumurthy Kasinathan (Guru)*
“Increasing cost of elections leads to unethical, illegal and even mafia provided electoral funding, corruption, criminalisation and black money generation in various forms.”
A necessary (though not sufficient) component of democracy is the ability of citizens to choose their representatives to legislative bodies in a fair and well-informed manner. However, there are several reasons why this choice is being increasingly manipulated and distorted.
Elections are seeing more and more funds being deployed in canvassing, and winner lists are featuring more number of millionaires and billionaires. This puts candidates without money power at a disadvantage. Secondly, media is being increasingly manipulated to distort discourse. The craft of new media, as is being practised today, is drowning out reasoned and deep debates on topics and issues. In this article, we will focus on the role Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) can play with respect to two factors - election funding and candidate canvassing.
Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)
All ICT is about creating, revising, sharing and storing information, yet digital technologies have made these processes easier and quicker, which has made us part of a 'digital society' or ‘information society'. In just around three decades, information stored in digital formats has increased from zero to nearly 100 per cent (see image). These 'digital technologies' have begun playing an important role in our individual and social lives. Time and again, we have seen decisive
evidence of the political implications of ICTs, the role they have played in mobilising people, from 1999, in the anti-WTO (World Trade Organisation) protests on the streets of Seattle, the 2008 US Presidential election to influence individual voters and raise small donations, to the 2011 Arab Spring, when people came together to overthrow authoritarian regimes.
Closer home, in 2007, the 'cheap cell phone' ostensibly steered the vote in favour of the BSP, as Dalit activists were better able to network their act together. Similar analyses, identifying the powerful role of social media have made headlines in the 2014 national elections and recent UP elections as well.
ICT can be used to both - further the distortion in election funding and campaigning, or counter these trends. So far, they have mostly been used to make elections less democratic. The free flow of funds out of India to tax havens abroad and their flow back to the country for use in illegitimate, if not illegal, purposes has grown.
While, this phenomenon has preceded ICT, electronic banking or use of digital methods for transferring funds across accounts has made it logistically far easier to wire transfer unaccounted monies abroad and bring it back when needed. As Tatiana Tropina says, “New digital tools for money transfers, such as online and mobile banking, electronic payments, cryptocurrencies, e-commerce providers, and online gambling services, especially if they are combined, provide a countless number of opportunities to distance money from illegal sources of profit or to illegally transfer money from legal sources. New forms of doing business online, and the digital economy as a whole, facilitate the transfer of illegal profits and the aggregation of illicit funds in offshore accounts.”
It is easier to keep these digital transactions secret, since the increasing levels of automation of these processes means that fewer people need to be in the know of these. As these transactions get handled more by 'software' and algorithms, increasing number and complexity of fund transfer transactions can be handled in a way so as to involve fewer people and keep transactions confidential.
Transparency in Election Funding
On the other hand, electronic transactions potentially leave behind a trail. Recording and making it available can help to make election funding more transparent. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has touted the anti-corruption aspect of e-banking as one of the reasons for the recent demonetisation exercise. This certainly can be made fully applicable to election funding.
In the 2017 Budget, the government has implemented the Election Commission's (EC) recommendation to bring in transparency in political funding by requiring political parties to take donations above `2,000 from donors only through cheque and digital payments. This limit can be further reduced to `500 per donation, to make it difficult for parties to account for secret donations as cash donations. Any donation above `500 should be accepted by a political party or a candidate fighting elections only through check or electronic banking, which will provide a trail of the donation and identity of the donor.
Periodic Publishing of Donations Received
While political parties enjoy exemption from income tax, they are required to keep record of donations received and also file annual returns. Most parties have not been filing their tax returns. The 2017 budget has a provision by which political parties will not be able to claim exemption from income tax if they do not
file their returns within the stipulated time (within 9 months from end of the financial year). This must be strictly enforced by the Income Tax Department, which is technically easy to do, even for the few hundred Indian political parties registered.
All political parties must be mandated to publish their annual audited accounts on their party websites every year, within 14 days of completion of the audit. Along with the audited statements, the site must provide a list of all donations received by the party above `500. (this can be called the 'Report on all donations above `500 received by a party for the year 2015-16').
It should also be required that donations above `100,000 be put up on this website list within a month of its receipt. (This can be called the 'Report on all donations above `100,000 received by the party for the year 2015-16' and this list should be updated every month). The list of donations must be part of the information filed every year with the EC.
Portal for companies to file returns
All information submitted to the commission should be filed in digital format, similar to the manner in which companies file many of their periodic returns electronically with the Ministry of Company Affairs. The EC should maintain a similar portal for this purpose. The portal can automatically provide reports from the filed returns, so that people can access the lists of all political parties in one place. Also, this will reduce the risk that the list will be removed by the party from its website.
On the lines of companies' reports of meetings of board of directors being formally submitted to the Ministry of Company Affairs, another idea that can be considered is to promote inner-party democracy by requiring parties to formally hold meetings of their key committees periodically and submit minutes of such meetings on the EC portal (the nature and detail of sharing can be worked out to accommodate sensitivities of sharing these discussions – perhaps a simple list of agenda items and decisions could be submitted on the portal).
Post Election Returns
The publishing of information on donations received should also be specifically applicable to elections. The EC must require every candidate for every constituency to file a report within a specified period after the election results are announced. Candidates must provide a list of all donations above `500 received by them in this post election report filed with the commission.
All parties contesting the elections must also provide a similar report, for donations received in connection with the elections and funds spent on the elections (this can be called the 'Report on all donations above `500 received for any elections'). The EC should report this information on its own website, for every elections. The candidates who have not filed this report after an election, should be deemed ineligible for filing their nomination for any subsequent elections.
Filing the report of donations received, both during the year as well as during elections, by political parties and individual contestants with the EC in digital form, and the publishing of these on the website of the commission is very plausible and will promote transparency in election funding.
The Provision of 'Bearer Bonds’ in 2017 Budget
However, the 2017 budget has also introduced a fatal loophole which has the potential to greatly aggravate opaque funding of political parties and hence corruption in election funding. The budget allows for 'bearer bonds' (which will not record the identity) to be purchased by individuals and entities and donated to parties.
The budget allows companies to keep the name of the party they contribute funding to as confidential in their financial statements. Earlier, they had to disclose the amount and the name of the party to whom contribution has been made.
As a result of these budget provisions, political parties need not disclose the source of these anonymous corporate donations. Those in power can safely misuse their power to extract rent from companies without any trail of where the funds are coming from. This is a sure recipe for corruption. The bonds should be allowed only on the same terms of the cheque/electronic funds transfer donations, and should have full information about the donors. The Report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, (NCRWC) 2001, clearly states that donations to political parties should be transparent and information on these be fully disclosed by both the donors and the receivers.
If the BJP is indeed serious about reducing corruption in donations to political parties, it should make political party funding completely transparent on the lines of the steps suggested, since election funding is one of the main causes for black money generation and corruption. In the current environment, it is believed that parties collect huge funds from corporates and in return provide them favours in designing or implementing policy. This quid pro quo is a sophisticated variation of the licence-permit raj and is a huge reason for corruption.
In addition, the Companies Act should be amended to allow companies to make donations to an election fund, which will be administered by the EC. This could be used by the commission for enlarging its role in electoral oversight and providing a minimum equitable financial support to all candidates (or at least candidates whose net assets are below a specified minimum as per their electoral affidavits). The NCRWC, 2001 also recommended the establishment of such an 'electoral trust' to channelise donations. The EC can allow such donations to be done using simple fund transfer forms on its portal.
Information about Election Contestants
The benefit of storing and sharing information easily and widely with ICT should be applied to information on candidates and parties. While today they spend huge amounts on sharing information about themselves and their ideologies and activities, this is in a typical 'caveat emptor' mode where there are few restrictions on what they say and don't say. This also allows parties and candidates with deep pockets to bombard the mass media with their messages, which can drown out the messaging of other candidates.
Already the commission requires filing of affidavits by candidates, disclosing information relating to their assets and liabilities, and criminal records among others. This information can be expanded, with relevant guidelines, to cover additional data elements that will be useful for people to assess their candidature. This can include manifestos, campaign promises, views on major election issues that are made available by the candidates.
All such information should also have a provision for being directly uploaded on-line by candidates on the EC portal. Reports based on these submissions should also be published there. The raw data should be made available in an accessible format which is published, so that other organisations can download the data, analyse and publish the same. The reports from Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), for instance, give us an idea of the profile of candidates and the extent of such reporting can and should be expanded. The commission's portal itself can upload reports that provide answers to many 'frequently asked questions'.
Broadening and Deepening the Debate
Secondly, there must be a formal provision in the public broadcasting system to provide time to candidates to speak to their constituencies, and the Election Commission should work out the guidelines for these in terms of duration of presentations, debates, prior intimation of these programmes so that people are able to tune in. The speeches and debates on state radio and TV systems should be made available on the commission portal as well, for people to view it later. Community radio stations can be given guidelines to provide air time to all candidates in that location to present their views. This can provide possibilities for presentations and reasoned debates amongst candidates, accessible on public broadcasting, and reduce the uneven playing field amongst candidates.
Over time, this can have elements for participation of people in these discussions through phone-in questions. The commission should also enlarge the scope of its own public education efforts during elections. Currently its messages focus on asking people to vote and the rules relating to voting. But if deepening democracy means that more citizens should formally participate in actual election processes of canvassing and debating views, the scope of the commission's public education efforts could expand to encourage active citizen participation in all aspects of the election processes. There have been awareness drives that have actively sought to involve citizens in the electoral canvassing and fund raising. For instance, in the 2016 US Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders collected most of his funding from a large number of small donations, which was quite different from the funding patterns of the other (Democrat and Republican) candidates. Encouraging this will deepen democracy. In India, various government departments now routinely use WhatsApp and similar social media avenues for pro-active communication to citizens, and the Election Commission too should institutionalise public education campaigns using such methods.
Retaining and Analysing Information
All the information discussed above, should be retained on the portal for at least 15 to 20 years, since it will be useful for people to listen to the views of the candidates who are likely to be re-contesting elections.
The commission should also investigate possibilities of paid news, by analysing patterns of news relating to elections and candidates in print and electronic media. Through data mining, over time, the commission will be able to design algorithms that make detection of such patterns easier. The commission should also design a process in which people can share digital records (images, videos) of events in their constituencies with the appropriate authorities (may be the state election commissions) of violations of the code of conduct or laws relating to elections. The misuse of mass media (both print and electronic) can thus be discouraged through such measures.
Social media is a new entrant to the election scene, but threatens to become the most important actor soon.
Social media is much more difficult to follow and regulate and can be misused by parties or their fronts to manipulate public opinion easily. In the recent US Presidential elections and the Uttar Pradesh elections, it is reported that parties actively shared fake news and views with a clear motive to manipulate people's opinions. Bombarding messages on social media, trolling people who offer dissenting views, whipping up sentiments in favour of certain positions are all easily possible and are being done, and this can further vitiate the election atmosphere and make reasoned and well-informed judgements even more difficult. There is a need to create and implement regulation in this area. This should include penalties for sharing news that is false or defamatory.
The internet is our 'new media'. Publishing news and views is no longer the prerogative of the big media entities, but something individuals can do and are doing all the time, over the internet,through social media. However, unlike the world of the traditional media, in this new world it has been extremely difficult to work out the responsibilities of different actors – the web platforms, the internet service providers (ISP), content creators, content disseminators in the process of publishing.
The fact that the internet is a global platform, with people being able to participate from anywhere makes regulation by national or state bodies very challenging, if not impossible. There is a need for global internet governance policy frameworks and institutions to define, design and support implementation of such frameworks. This will also need to address the issue of foreign government intervention in overt and covert ways, in the election processes of countries. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is probing whether Russia had a role to play in the recent US presidential elections, it is believed that successive US governments have at various times actively intervened to overtly and covertly subvert elections in other countries. This issue will become more prominent as political campaigns themselves become more and more internet based.
Difficult but Essential
The challenge of enforcing regulation is that elections are point-in-time events, with a very huge investment of resources, in the nature of 'big bangs'. Creating any regulatory infrastructure, on the other hand, is time consuming and takes time to mature, and requires to be used on a 'steady-state' mode. One way out is to start small and mature the processes over time and with experience of implementation. Leaving the area out will only vitiate democracy rapidly as elections become more and more vulnerable to big funding and media manipulations.
Do Digital Technologies Facilitate Illicit Financial Flows? Part of “World development report”, by Dr. Tatiana Tropina, retrieved from http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/396751453906608518/WDR16-BP-Do-Digital-Technologies-Facilitate-Illicit-Financial-Flows-Tropina.pdf https://thewire.in/29984/time-to-institutionalise-funding-of-political-parties/
retrieved from http://adrindia.org/content/analysis-sources-funding-national-and-regional-parties-fy-2004-05-2014-15-0
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*Gurumurthy Kasinathan (Guru) is Founder and Director of IT for Change, a Bangalore based NGO. He has over 28 years of experience in the development, corporate and government sectors and has written articles and papers in the areas of OER, professional learning communities, ICT and Education, Education Leadership and Management. Detailed information on his varied experiences can be accessed at: http://itforchange.net/guru