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Have Indian elections become a marketplace?

The Election Commission is considering imposing a cap on the amount of money a political party can spend on campaigning

analysis Updated: Sep 01, 2018 16:17 IST
A cap, of between 50 and 70 lakh rupees of election related expenditure per candidate, exists even today. It is another matter that almost every candidate under-reports this number, making a mockery of the cap(HT )

A new debate is raging in the corridors of power in New Delhi. Should money power be allowed to play a determining role in shaping the outcome of the national elections? The Election Commission is considering the pros and cons of imposing a cap on the amount of money a political party can spend on campaigning. The BJP is against it, all other parties want it. It is quite obvious why. Right now, one party has the means, the others do not and the BJP thinks it is a classic case of sour grapes.

But the question is not about this election, or indeed, one party. It is a philosophical one. After all, times change, political parties are in and out of favour. What holds for the BJP today may once have been true for the Congress party, in terms of access to a lion’s share of election funds. Yet, it is the growing influence of money, before and after elections, that may have reached disturbing proportions, triggering this debate on whether it can shroud a truly democratic verdict.

The case is simple. A cap, of between Rs 50 and 70 lakh, of election related expenditure per candidate, exists even today. It is another matter that almost every candidate under reports this number, making a mockery of the cap. Demonetisation notwithstanding, cash rules the game of election spending, and political actors are past masters at hiding the trail of money in use. This is precisely why the Law Commission’s recommendation is to not bother with a cap. It will remain only on paper, and can never be implemented. This is true.

Yet, there must be a way to think of constraints, because the growing role of money is causing all kinds of skews and distortions in our electoral process. The first issue is about the extent of influence that can be brought to bear upon the electorate, through recourse to vast amounts of money. A disproportionately large publicity budget drowns out the voice of competing parties and also allows a party to ‘buy’ votes through all kinds of material inducements, to which Indian voters are always greedily amenable. But then it becomes a transaction, not an election.

The matter of a level playing field is important. When demonetisation happened, many political pundits felt that it was a ploy to squeeze funding for political rivals ahead of the UP assembly elections. Nothing can ever be proved, but it was interesting that the BSP, which analysts felt would be most inconvenienced, managed only 19 out of 403 seats. For a conspiracy theory, it seemed uncannily prescient.

And it does not end with pre-election campaigns either. In recent assembly polls, Goa and Manipur for example, a post-poll alliance was suddenly cobbled up by the party with access to greater resources, thwarting the one which secured the maximum votes. Lest we feel it is cynical to think that money was at play there — in Karnataka, one party chose to confine all its winning candidates in a remote resort as the party which fell short of the majority had asked for time to ‘organise’ the requisite number. Indian parliamentary history is blotted with several past episodes, such as the cash for votes controversy, that hint at the blatant use of money for buying political support.

The elephant in the room is corporate funding. This nexus between the corporate sector and Indian political parties is hardly new. The party in pole position attracts the maximum funding and in turn makes promises to bend policy to bestow significant, and often unlawful, largesse on the donor. There is no free lunch, after all. Crony capitalism, contrary to assertions, continues to thrive. Only names of the beneficiaries change.

The darker shades of capitalism seem to be seeping into all walks of life, with virtually everything becoming a marketplace. In the EPL, Sheikh Mansour’s billions buy soccer glory for Manchester City. In the Indian marriage market, there is a dowry rate card, graded by profession, to buy the right husband. Is it naive to think our elections will be any different?

Udayan Mukherjee is Consulting Editor, CNBC TV18. His first novel, Dark Circles, is being published by Bloomsbury India this November.

First Published: Sep 01, 2018 16:15 IST