India’s hugely expensive electoral system is often held responsible for the manifold problems that plague the polity. From corruption to cronyism, almost everything can be pinned on the chest of a flawed system of election expenses. It has been argued that state funding of elections can resolve this problem.
It is an old idea that has been revived again in recent debates on the subject. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati finds herself on a long list of politicians who favour the move. Chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi has warned against the potential pitfalls in state-funded elections.
On the surface, the idea is neat: If national and state-level parties are given money to contest elections then the chances that public policies will be twisted to favour companies and individuals who fund elections will diminish significantly. To any disinterested person, the reasoning is compelling. In this season of scandals can anyone eliminate doubts about the political logic of cronyism? In this worldview, delinking private corporate funding from elections is a public good.
Hardly. Scratch the surface and you’ll discover more pathologies than answers. For starters, how will the state fund elections? Obviously by levying taxes on citizens and this is where problems will kick in. When seen from a distributional perspective, the solution will be heavily skewed against taxpayers. For this additional tax, if it is to make sense, will be levied on existing income tax payers and not add to corporate tax. For, if corporate taxes are increased to fund elections, then the old problem of companies funding parties and cronyism will emerge in another garb. In any case, India’s poor are unlikely to be burdened with such a tax. The net effect will be to tax the most depoliticized class, the class of income tax payers, with this most “political” of all taxes.
The objective of such a “reform”, that of ensuring better public policies is unlikely to be met. For the truth is that apart from funding of elections, there are other sources of cronyism and corruption too. The venality of individual ministers and other decision makers will not be affected by a change in the election-funding pattern. If anything, the monetary “gap” between what companies shell out as electoral donations and the rents/bribes garnered by decision makers is likely to be subsumed as greater rents/bribes. In that sense, state funding of elections is a chimera. The real problems that lead to perversions in policymaking lie elsewhere.
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