Why independents fail to make a mark in elections
The key to this problem lies in the way political and electoral financing are conducted in this country
The stranglehold of political parties on the electoral and political system continues to increase with time. The anti-defection law, passed in 1985, formalised the control of political parties even on Parliament. Despite a large number of candidates on the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), the candidates with a realistic chance of getting elected are two or three, having got tickets from major political parties. Effectively, the choice of a voter is constrained by the choices made by a set of political parties. To sum up, this is what makes it almost impossible for independents to get elected.
The first four elections to the Lok Sabha saw a reasonable number of independents getting elected: 37 in 1951; 42 in 1957; 28 in 1962; and 43 in 1967. After that it has gone down to single digits. Only five independent candidates were elected in 2004. The number went up to nine in 2009 but dropped again to a dismal three in 2014. The situation in the assemblies is not too different. During the last three assembly elections, as many as 23 of 29 states showed a declining trend in electing independent candidates. The trend in the remaining six is mixed.
What will the elimination of independents and domination by candidates of political parties lead to? Is it good for democracy? The response to these questions is, “It can be good for democracy, provided certain conditions are met.” These conditions were specified by the Law Commission of India in 1999 in their 170th report: “It must be said that if democracy and accountability constitute the core of our constitutional system, the same concepts must also apply to and bind the political parties which are integral to parliamentary democracy…A political party which does not respect democratic principles in its internal working cannot be expected to respect those principles in the governance of the country. It cannot be dictatorship internally and democratic in its functioning outside.”
How many of our parties are democratic in their internal functioning is for the reader to decide.
Why it is so difficult for independents to get elected? As the saying goes, “Money makes the mare go.” The key lies in political and electoral financing. There are two major strands to this argument.
First, while there is a limit on expenditure that an individual candidate can incur on her/his election, there is none on the amount that a political party can. This obviously puts independent candidates, who had no party to bankroll their election, at a huge disadvantage.
The second strand pertains to the collection of money and is two-pronged. First is tax exemption. The Income Tax Act 1961, and amended in 1978 with the addition of Section 13A, grants 100% exemption from income tax to political parties. It also clarifies that for the purposes of this section, ‘political party’ means a political party registered under the Representation of People Act. So, the tax exemption that a party’s candidate enjoys becomes indirectly unavailable to independent candidates.
The way politicians collect their fund is another aspect that puts the independents at disadvantage. Funding of political parties remains by and large a mysterious affair, but two recent decisions taken by governments are illustrative.
In 2013, the UPA-2 introduced an Electoral Trusts Scheme. It said, “An electoral trust shall be required to distribute the distributable contributions received in a financial year… to the eligible political parties ….”
The independent candidates are not eligible to get money from electoral trusts. But, incidentally, the Delhi High Court has held both the BJP and the Congress guilty of accepting money from ‘foreign sources’, thus violating the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA). Interestingly, the ruling NDA government has been trying to get both the parties, the BJP and Congress, off the hook by attempting to amend the FCRA repeatedly, which in essence exempts them from any liability for their retrospective fund collection. Their latest attempt was to amend a law that was dead for eight years.
In January, the NDA government notified ‘electoral bonds’, and just like electoral trusts, the electoral bond notification says, “Only the Political Parties registered under … the Representation of the People Act… shall be eligible to receive the Electoral Bonds.” It bypasses the independents as well.
There is more to electoral bonds. These were introduced in the budget speech by the finance minister, in a section titled “Transparency in Electoral Funding”. But on the same day, the finance minister told the media that these bonds will be bearer in character to keep the donor anonymous. The only thing such steps would result in is the lack of transparency. Independents will increasingly find it difficult to fight that battle.
Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a former professor, dean, and director In-charge of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad; and a Founder-Member of Association for Democratic Reforms
The views are personal