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Keep it poll-ution free

In all fairness to the media, one reason could be sheer weariness ? they have been there before and come back with nothing to report, writes Prem Shankar Jha.

india Updated: Jan 02, 2006 01:54 IST

Such is the cynicism that grips the middle-class consumers of our middle-class media that the government’s request to the Election Commission (EC) to provide it with ideas (if not a blueprint) for the reform of electoral financing made headlines in only one of Delhi’s 14 newspapers. In all fairness to the media, one reason could be sheer weariness — they have been there before and come back with nothing to report.

The National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) had made an unambiguous commitment: “As part of its commitment to electoral reforms, the UPA will initiate steps to introduce State funding of elections at the earliest.” One of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first acts after he came to power was, therefore, to ask the EC to give him a paper on electoral reform. The response, sent to him on July 5 last year, was a giant exercise in irrelevance, for in its 43 pages, it never once mentioned either State funding or election finance. Clearly, no one in the EC had read the NCMP. It, therefore, got the burial it deserved.

But precisely because of the EC’s total inability to look beyond housekeeping details pertaining to existing law, I am at a loss to understand why Singh has approached the same body a second time. Does he seriously expect a different response or is he looking for a paper from an ‘expert body’ to shelter behind while he makes his decisions? For the truth is that electoral reforms are far too important a subject to be left to any bunch of bureaucrats, no matter what organisation they belong to. The problems that we face here are quintessentially political. This is, therefore, one decision that the political leadership will have to take on its own.

The source of our problems is an oversight — in retrospect, inexplicable — by the makers of our Constitution. In Britain, from which we borrowed our election law and much else, the average constituency has about 60,000 voters. A candidate can drive out to different towns and villages in his constituency every day and come home to sleep. The only real expenses he faces are gasoline and the hire of a town hall or other public place. Given the well-oiled party machinery, he does not have to hire election agents, tables, chairs and security men. So a small individual ceiling on expenses is all that the country needs to keep the electoral system honest. But even in Britain, this is circumvented by permitting the party to spend on behalf of the candidate.

In India, the average constituency covers 6,000 sq km, contains at least 1,000 ‘revenue villages’ (which means 4-5,000 hamlets) and has over a million voters. It has up to 1,200 polling booths and each requires a team of at least 16 to man. As if all this were not enough, since 1971, each constituency has had to vote twice — once for Parliament and once for the state assembly.

There was no way in which such a huge democratic machine could have been run without money — lots of money. What was truly surprising about the Constitution makers was their lack of awareness that the US had faced the same problem and had already amended the election finance laws eight times between 1865 and 1945 (it did so a ninth time in 1961 and a tenth reform is on the anvil now).

The Indian system, therefore, cried out for reform. But instead of filling the lacuna that the founding fathers had left, in 1967, Indira Gandhi decided to close off the only honest sources of funds that were left to the electoral system by banning corporate donations and abolishing the princes’ privy purses. She did this in a petty act of vindictiveness because she found that in 1967, both had begun to support the newly formed Swatantra Party and the BJP. But the effect of her action on the Indian political system was devastating. Business was pushed out of politics and the princes were tamed, but black money generators and criminals moved in to fill the gap.

From squeezing industrialists to pay donations in cash, governments have moved to fixing kickbacks on foreign purchases and domestic contracts. In defence, these average 20 per cent of the value of imports; we are, in effect, using the blood of our soldiers to oil the political machine. At the state level, according to estimates by the Planning Commission, between 70 and 95 per cent of the funds allocated in each of ten five-year Plans for rural development and a large chunk of other state plan expenditure have gone into a maze of kickbacks that binds everyone from the gram panchayats to the block development officer, the zilla parishad members, the MLAs and MPs in a seamless web that is now impossible to pierce.

Even civil servants who occupy ‘offices of profit’, such as income tax, customs and excise duty collectors, port trust commissioners, station house officers in the police and just about everyone else through whose hands money has to pass in the course of his duties, now pays in advance for appointment to a particularly lucrative post.

But what about a party that has not so far been in power? What about a breakaway party of backward class legislators with no access to industrialists and defence contractors? For them there is one alternative — organised crime. Today, after more than four decades of supporting MPs and MLAs in exchange for protection, criminals have begun to take over the legislature itself. Almost a quarter of the current MPs, and a majority of MLAs, are either proclaimed offenders or have serious charges, not excluding murder, rape, armed robbery and kidnapping, against them. Two ministers in the current UPA government are either absconding or have been served warrants of arrest by the Bihar police. Of 34 Congress and BSP MLAs in UP who defected to Kalyan Singh’s BJP government in 1997, 19 had serious charges, including multiple murder, against them. All became ministers to make doubly sure they remained above prosecution.

One would have thought these were good enough reasons to enact a reform that can at least arrest, if not reverse, the descent into Pindari rule. But the vested interests that have built up around this criminalised system have found a unique reason to oppose its destruction. The Indian political animal, in particular, is irremediably corrupt. State funding will, therefore, make no difference to political morality and accountability and will only throw good money after bad. It will also open the PM to the charge of lining his party members’ pockets at the expense of the exchequer.

This argument deliberately misses the true purpose of the reform. When fund raising became a clandestine operation, it transferred effective power within a party from its elected office-bearers to anybody who could raise money. The constant need for funds forced the former to ignore the nature and source of the money. The money raisers have been able, in turn, to demand some control over the choice of candidates. In time, this has become a potent source of their power within the party. As a result, behind the monolithic façade of even the Congress, a good part of the power of the elected office-bearers has shifted to nameless satraps with shady connections.

If it is sufficiently generous, State funding will free the elected office-bearers from bondage to the fund raisers and their patrons. It is the first essential step towards choosing honest, able and deserving candidates. It will also give voters the freedom to choose between honest candidates and criminals. This is a freedom that they do not, for the most part, enjoy at present. It is the goad that will eventually force all political parties to clean up their acts.