Time To Save Democracy From Plutocracy & Kleptocracy

Time To Save Democracy From Plutocracy & Kleptocracy

Voter inducements and vast election expenditure have now reached such a level that they can no longer be addressed by moral entreaties and personal ethics. It is now a systemic problem

Dr Jayaprakash NarayanUpdated: Sunday, December 17, 2023, 09:29 PM IST
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Income Tax Department to deposit all cash at Balangir SBI branch | ANI

Earlier this month, it was widely reported in the media that the Income Tax department raided several properties in Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal linked to a Congress MP, Dhiraj Prasad Sahu. An astonishing amount of cash — about Rs 350 crore — was reported to have been found. The usual slanging match between parties was witnessed on TV channels. Political polemics apart, it is widely known that Indian elections and large quantities of unaccounted cash are inseparable.

In the recently held Telangana Assembly election, most of the candidates of major parties contesting — Congress, BRS and BJP — are estimated to have spent about Rs 25-30 crore on an average. With three major parties in the fray, the total election expenditure of the constituency level was about Rs 10,000 crore, a staggering amount for a relatively small state with 17 Lok Sabha constituencies. In addition, major parties have spent a lot of money on advertising and campaign of star leaders.

Parties need money for legitimate activities. However, legitimate expenditure for election campaigns and party organisation is not the real problem. There is inexhaustible appetite for illegitimate funds in our political process. Most expenditure in elections in many states is for bribing the voter with money and other inducements like gifts and liquor. In all the southern states except Kerala, vast illegitimate and unaccounted expenditure has become the norm. Many other states are catching on, and voter inducement has become an increasingly common practice. It does not mean that you can buy the voters with money; the money given to voter only ensures that the candidate distributing money is considered as a serious and viable candidate. In other words, the distribution of money is more like an entrance fee — large expenditure on voters does not guarantee victory; non-expenditure almost certainly guarantees defeat. Even in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir voters expect large amount of cash disbursals during the election.

Vote buying is illegal, and theoretically the candidate and party workers bribing the voters and the voters receiving the money are guilty of a crime. But it is impossible to regulate it by law and prosecution when it becomes a part of the established political culture. In each Assembly constituency, serious candidates in many states distribute money to about one lakh voters. Voters receive money from the two or three viable and serious candidates in the field, and then vote for whomever they wish among those candidates. The other candidates have no chance of getting elected, save in an exceptional case. As a result, the most important qualification parties seek among the aspiring candidates is their capacity and willingness to spend vast amounts of money illegitimately. Often the first question asked is, “How much can you spend?” Given our low per capita income, the expenditure in vote buying is astronomical in many states. The spending is necessarily in unaccounted cash, fuelling black money and corruption. A candidate who spends Rs 25-30 crore to get elected has to replenish the cost of the election and the earlier expenditure incurred in establishing his political credentials or in failed attempts to get elected, and accumulate enough funds for the next election. In addition, he has to make a decent pile of money to further his own personal fortunes. All this means that the illegitimate, unaccounted election expenditure fuels five- to ten-fold corruption to sustain our political cycles. It is insane to spend such vast sums to get elected in a poor country, but there are enough potential candidates enamoured by prospects of power willing to join the electoral fray at such cost, taking great risks. In the process, honest and public-spirited citizens are increasingly marginalised in our electoral process. Either they stay away from electoral politics, or are elbowed out of politics, or compromise over time and join the game in order to survive. Increasingly, honesty and survival in political office are mutually incompatible. An individual may be personally honest, and many in politics even today are personally clean, but he has to participate in institutional corruption to sustain illegitimate election expenditure and preserve electoral viability.

Voter inducements and vast election expenditure have now reached such a level that they can no longer be addressed by moral entreaties and personal ethics. It is now a systemic problem. The parties need to either come together and genuinely agree collectively to completely end the practice of voter inducements. It is much harder than it appears. In the absence of mutual trust among parties, and in the face of a large number of aspiring candidates who are willing to spend vast sums to find a foothold in politics, voluntary abstinence is not easy to practice. The other answer is altering the electoral system to minimise the incentive for vote buying. Our first-past-the-post electoral system in a poor country with centralised power and weak rule of law is a fertile ground for vote buying. We need to introspect collectively and look at genuine electoral reform options to save our democracy from plutocracy and kleptocracy.

(The author is the founder of Lok Satta movement and Foundation for Democratic Reforms. Email: drjploksatta@gmail.com / Twitter@jp_loksatta)

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