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How to keep our votes safe

State funding of polls must be preceded by electoral and financial transparency in political parties. Jagdeep S Chhokar writes.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:49 IST

The editorial, Not a wealth of information (Our Take, March 19), was a correct description of what WikiLeaks has revealed about how India's foreign affairs and political establishments work.

However, one sentence needs to be commented on, and that is its recommendation for setting up "a commission to look into the idea of public funding of political campaigns". This reveals how short our public memory is.

Three learned groups have laboured over this issue.

In 1998, "all parties, without exception, felt seriously concerned [about] the mounting role of money power, particularly black money, in the electoral field."

The outcome was the Committee of State Funding of Elections (the Indrajit Gupta Committee), 1998. Soon after, in 1999, the Law Commission of India submitted its report on electoral reforms that had a separate section on 'Control of election expenses' including a chapter on 'State funding'.

Subsequently, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) set up in 2000, also, in its report in 2002, made significant observations on State funding. With the wealth of knowledge, analysis and recommendations available in these reports, it is now time for action and not for setting up yet another commission.

What do these reports recommend?

The Indrajit Gupta committee report is often quoted in support of State funding. What is overlooked is the opening paragraph of the 'Conclusion' that says, "Before concluding, the Committee cannot help expressing its considered view that its recommendations being limited in nature and confined to only one of the aspects of the electoral reforms may bring about only some cosmetic changes in the electoral sphere. What is needed, however, is an immediate overhauling of the electoral process whereby elections are freed from evil influence of all vitiating factors, particularly, criminalisation of politics… money power and muscle power go together to vitiate the electoral process and it is their combined effect which is sullying the purity of electoral contests and effecting free and fair elections."

The Law Commission specifies what these reforms are, particularly in the context of State funding: "… State funding, even if partial, should never be resorted to unless the other provisions mentioned aforesaid are implemented lest the very idea may prove counter-productive and may defeat the very object underlying the idea of State funding of elections."

Among "the other provisions" are those "ensuring internal democracy, internal structures, and maintenance of accounts, their auditing and submission to Election Commission."

The NCRWC reiterates the above: "Any system of State funding of elections bears a close nexus to the regulation of working of political parties by law and to the creation of a foolproof mechanism under law with a view to implementing the financial limits strictly.

Therefore, proposal for State funding should be deferred till these regulator mechanisms are firmly in position."

It is, therefore, clear that while State funding may be helpful in improving our democracy, resorting to it before ensuring deeper electoral and political reforms such as internal democracy and financial transparency in political parties, will be counterproductive.

The recent joint initiative of the law ministry and the Election Commission is a historic opportunity for 'overhauling of the electoral process' and for putting democracy on a sound path.

Jagdeep S Chhokar is former director in-charge, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The views expressed by the author are personal.