At a conference in Mumbai in late January, chief election commissioner (CEC) N. Gopalaswami lamented the influence of “money power”, noting recent controversies in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Last month, India Today devoted its cover to the rich who contest polls. And this month, CEC-designate Navin Chawla announced that income tax officials will be deployed for poll duty. Before army jawans are mobilized as chartered accountants, next month’s Lok Sabha elections should prompt India to take another look at the role of money in politics.
There’s no defending crooks who break the law. But the perennial nature of such controversies begs the question: Is there something wrong with the law itself? If Prohibition gave rise to countless gangsters and mass quantities of spurious liquor, it’s certainly worth questioning Prohibition. Likewise, for the current law on the books that limits spending for assembly seats to Rs10 lakh, and for parliamentary seats to Rs25 lakh. To wit, India should abolish the spending limit for candidates.
Consider that any change from the current system can’t be worse. In the worst case, getting rid of spending limits will not change politicians’ behaviour—it will only make legal what is already done illegally. It may, however, make life easier for the Election Commission, which doesn’t have to deploy an army of officials to check every ambulance for cash.
Better still, political parties may be encouraged to be honest about their full election expenditure. A full disclosure will allow the media and, in turn, the electorate, to learn about their candidates. This may expose discrepancies. And those who dislike excess expenditure can choose the candidate spending less.
Then there’s the old refrain that holds money as the root of all evil. That moral refrain here argues that removing spending limits will result in the richest of the rich running for office, people who can’t relate to the masses. Elections will devolve into a money-spending contest.
But this is already happening. The first two decades of this young democracy may have experienced the idealistic “man of the people”, but this idealism hasn’t proven sustainable in the long run. It’s about time we face reality. Consider the following evidence, aggregated from the New Delhi-based Liberty Institute’s EmpoweringIndia.org.
In the 2008 Karnataka assembly elections, 1.7% of the candidates who declared assets ranging between Rs1 lakh and Rs10 lakh won the elections; 10.9% for Rs10 lakh-1 crore; 26.8% for Rs1 crore-10 crore; and 41.8% for higher than Rs10 crore. It’s the same in Rajasthan, a state with a better record for election probity. In the 2008 assembly elections, 1.8% of the candidates who declared assets ranging between Rs1 lakh and Rs10 lakh won; 11.4% for Rs10 lakh-1 crore; 27% for Rs1 crore-10 crore; and 40% for higher than Rs10 crore.
This isn’t meant to be a rigorous scientific analysis. But these instances should at least force us to ask: Is there some correlation —a rightful one—between the size of a candidate’s assets and the likelihood of his victory? After all, money is analogous to speech: Electioneering expenses, such as advertising or canvassing, allow a candidate’s voice to reach the far corners of the constituency. If the Constitution protects speech, it ought to protect spending too.
Elections in India are always a contest for who can spend the most money, if not now then at least when in office. Which is preferable: a candidate who spends his own money to get into office, or one who promises to spend taxpayers’ money on useless projects? We label the first as corruption and the second as democracy. It’s about time we got rid of this hypocrisy.
Abheek Bhattacharya is an assistant views editor at Mint. Comment at email@example.com