Prime Minister Narendra Modi has opened a new front in his high-visibility war on corruption by calling for State funding of elections, which he also wants held at the same time to the state assemblies and Parliament. Given the problems and disruption that the scrapping of ₹500 and ₹1,000 currency notes has caused countrywide, the immediate question would be how such a mammoth task could be accomplished. The scale of the exercise and the cost, given the country’s size, are both daunting. But there is no reason why there should not be a debate on whether this is possible and, even more crucially, desirable. By positioning it as vital to probity and transparency in public life, Mr Modi has clearly struck a chord with a populace disillusioned with the political class.
In India, the unrealistically low limits set by the Election Commission of India on campaign spending by political parties and candidates can be attributed as one of the reasons that have fuelled the black money economy. In theory, State funding would provide a level playing field for political parties and cut out money power from the equation, but in practice things may not work out so linearly. However, there are several options open on this front, including introducing more realistic campaign spending limits and a more transparent system for donations to political parties. Part-public funding of election campaigns is a practice in some countries — both the United States and Britain, for example, have it. We could have our own version.
Holding simultaneous elections to Parliament and assemblies, however, has ramifications that go far beyond issues of funding and logistics. In a way, it would give governments immunity from the everyday pressures of public opinion. The present practice of an election in some state or the other every year or so often forces governments to reconsider their plans and policies. Given the federal nature of the Indian union and the diversity of the country, this need not be a bad thing, though it could be argued that governance is affected. All of these are issues that can and should be debated and as Parliament opened for the winter session, Mr Modi has said the political class should send out a positive message. Electoral reforms are crucial to combating corruption but these also need to be done in a manner that does not tamper with the basic structure of India’s parliamentary democracy that was set in place after intensive debate in a very distinguished constituent assembly.