State funding of political parties could be a pillar of electoral reforms | opinion | Hindustan Times
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State funding of political parties could be a pillar of electoral reforms

A series of initiatives by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last six months have finally zeroed in on the need for electoral reforms, especially pertaining to political finance

opinion Updated: Jan 11, 2017 13:14 IST
An enormous turnout is witnessed at a polling station in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, during the assembly elections in  2012.  It is time to prescribe a ceiling for political parties’ expenditure like that for the candidates
An enormous turnout is witnessed at a polling station in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, during the assembly elections in 2012. It is time to prescribe a ceiling for political parties’ expenditure like that for the candidates(Hindustan Times Photo)

First it was the prime minister’s call for simultaneous elections in view of the repeated overwhelming costs (besides dislocation of normal life.) Then came the surprise announcement of demonetisation with the stated objective of rooting out the monster of black money from the economy. This would have surely hit parties which were getting ready to move sackfuls of black money to be distributed among the voters. Then came his direction to all his party legislators to disclose all their bank transactions from November 8. I thought it was a first positive step towards financial transparency of politicians. He repeated this call to the party workers on January 7. Beginning with his own party, this sends out a good signal.

The most explicit development is the PM’s expression of concern about the need for electoral reforms which he made in his address to the party MPs on the eve of the winter session of Parliament.

The focus on a cashless economy, even if it is an afterthought, also has a bearing on political parties. When even a rickshaw puller or vegetable seller is told to stop cash transactions, the exemption of donations to political parties below ₹20,000 by cash must be dispensed with straightaway. This will take care of non-transparency of 80% of political funding which all political parties have shown as cash donations.

Read: For cleaner polling, it’s time to push through big bang electoral reforms

The Election Commission of India (ECI) has been deeply concerned about the use of black money in elections. While its recommendations for reforms have been falling on deaf ears, it itself took some proactive measures including setting up of a full-fledged expenditure monitoring division headed by an Income Tax commissioner in 2010. It led to some landmark achievements, including seizures of hundreds of crore rupees, unseating and disqualification of a sitting MLA in UP for improper declaration of election expenses and paid news in 2011, and countermanding of two elections to the Rajya Sabha in Jharkhand in 2012 to stop ‘horse-trading’ that had become rampant in many Rajya Sabha elections. Recently, the EC took an unprecedented step to cancel elections to two Tamil Nadu assembly seats namely Aravakurichi and Thanjavur.

Read: Cleaning up poll funding should not remain a slogan

It seems the time is ripe for the long-standing concern. He should immediately review all the proposals of the EC for electoral reforms.

What are the reforms that we are demanding? I recapitulate below just the political finance reforms:

* Prescribe a ceiling for political parties’ expenditure like that for the candidates.

*Consider state funding of political parties (not elections) with independent audit, and a complete ban on private donations.

* Set up an independent national election fund where all tax-free donations could be made.

* Enforce internal democracy and transparency in the working of the political parties and bring them under RTI.

* Accept the EC’s proposal to legally empower it to cancel elections where credible evidence of abuse of money is found.

*Debar persons against whom cases of heinous offences are pending in courts from contesting elections.

* Empower the EC to deregister those political parties that haven’t contested any election for 10 years and yet benefited from tax exemptions.

* Make paid news an electoral office with two years imprisonment by declaring it a ‘corrupt practice’ (Sec 100 RP Act) and ‘undue influence’ (Sec 123(2).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a person of strong will. He must take his initiatives to their logical conclusion.

SY Quraishi is a former chief election commissioner and author of An Undocumented Wonder - The Making of the Great Indian Election

The views expressed are personal