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Electoral Reforms: Why 26 September could be an important day

On the 26th of this month, a confrontation is looming large. Not many will follow it and, I suspect, fewer still will report it [page 8, little column on bottom right – 50 words]. Obscurantism and obfuscation by some of our elected ones will, most likely, follow as well.

This confrontation threatens to upset the transparent opaqueness on the whole issue of political/electoral funding, such funds being then deployed to subvert, mock and sully the electoral landscape.

Representational image. Reuters

Congress, BJP, BSP, NCP etc have thumbed their noses at RTI with a somewhat infernal smugness, while dodging some simple questions pertaining to their finances – and the Chief Information Commissioner has taken this breach seriously.

Let me quote selectively from the ADR press-note dated 22 September, 2012, and other documents related to this case, and present the sequence of events that have transpired thus far:

Background: On being asked questions through RTI on their largest donors and the manner of these donations by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), all national political parties except for CPI declined to give the information. While CPI provided the information about their largest donors, their addresses, the mode of payment of these donations, etc., other parties either didn’t reply or simply said that they did not come under RTI. NCP came up with the most ludicrous excuse of all; they stated in their response that they “did not have enough manpower to provide the information asked for”!

Motilal Vora, the Treasurer of AICC, on the other hand took a different approach to stone-wall the query by writing: “This is in reference your application dated 29th October 2010 seeking information under Section 6(1) of the RTI Act 2005. Since the AICC does not come under RTI Act, your application along with Postal Order for Rs.10/- is returned herewith”.

Escalation: Subsequently, ADR filed a complaint with CIC in Mar 2011 to direct the political parties to furnish information pertaining to some of their largest donors (Source of donations, amount of donation, mode of contribution, the Financial Year(s) in which such donations were made, names of all those who have contributed amounts in excess of INR 100,000).

CIC Response: Vide the Hearing Notice dated 10 September, 2012, the CIC has asked the office bearers of the political parties in question to present themselves for a hearing on 26 September, 2012.The letter from CIC also mentions that the matter is serious and of wider implications. The case is thus going to be placed before a full bench.

A few days from now, we will know how this little battle pans out…..in the mean time, let us look at how this lack of transparency in political and electoral funding is destroying the soul of our Democracy.

On Money Power & Elections:

Any discussion on Electoral Reforms, on which I am attempting to hammer out a 4 part series [this being the 3rd part; click here and here for Parts 1&2], is hilariously pointless without recalling some frighteningly insincere, meaningless and rhetorical mumblings on the topic by people holding high political offices. One just has to put some of these revoltingly empty words on the left hand column of the ledger, and actions on the right, and then guffaw with sheer pain once the stark contrast hits home.

And it does hit home rather hard. Samples follow.

“We need to do more in contending with the influence of money and muscle power…We also need to build a consensus on how to prevent individuals with a criminal record from contesting elections.” (Sonia Gandhi, January 2011).

“Corruption is the enemy of development and of good governance…it is necessary to rise above it and seriously look at bringing systemic changes to deal more effectively with corruption……. The image of Parliament in the public mind should be one where proceedings, debates and discussions take place with a view to resolve issues through a constructive and co-operative approach. If this does not happen, people’s faith in democratic institutions can be affected, resulting in a feeling of despondency which is unacceptable in a healthy democracy, as it may derail democratic institutions.” (Pratibha Devisingh Patil, January 2011).

Not to be left behind, in February 2011, the BJP-led NDA said it would direct its MPs, chief ministers and senior most party leaders to declare their assets.

I don’t know about you, but the words above and other such hogwash makes me guffaw with revulsion and sheer pain…

….and these empty words, then go on to remind me of some not so empty words spoken by Edmund Burke, who once said that “it was corrupt and the arbitrary authority, and not the revulsion against it, that required justification” [Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man by Christopher Hitchens].

Now, let us look at the counter-narrative to what Sonia Gandhi, Pratibha Patil and others like them have so loftily pontificated on.

The “pernicious influence of big money in derailing the democratic process” was noticed and documented as early as 1993 in the Vohra Committee Report.

The NCRWC report [2001] notes that the high cost of elections “creates a high degree of compulsion for corruption in the public arena”, that “the sources of some of the election funds are believed to be unaccounted criminal money in return for protection, unaccounted funds from business groups who expect a high return on this investment, kickbacks or commissions on contracts, etc.”, and that “Electoral compulsions for funds become the foundation of the whole super structure of corruption”.

A theme that was expanded upon beautifully by Dr Jayaprakash Narayan, in March 2002, at a Workshop on Electoral Reforms in Bangalore, and then reinforced at Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) Asia Regional Meeting in Gurgaon in 2011:

“Excessive, illegal and illegitimate expenditure in elections is the root cause of corruption. Among elected representatives, almost everyone violates expenditure ceiling laws. Abnormal election expenditure has to be recouped in multiples to sustain the system.

The high risk involved in election expenditure (winner-take-all process), the long gestation period required for most politicians who aspire for legislative office, the higher cost of future elections, the need to involve the vast bureaucracy in the web of corruption (with 90% shared by the large number of employees) – all these mean that for every rupee of expenditure, hundred rupees has to be recovered to sustain the system.

One rupee election expenditure normally entails at least a five-fold return to the politician. To share five rupees with the political class, the rent-seeking bureaucracy has to recover about Rs.50. In order to extort Rs.50 from the public, there should be delay, inefficiency, harassment, humiliation and indignity worth Rs.500 heaped on the innocent citizens! …….

The inconvenience, humiliation, the lost opportunities and the distortion of market forces are often worth ten times the actual corruption.”

As if the words above are not devastating enough, he then twists and pushes in the knife deeper:

“Unaccounted and illegitimate election expenditure is thus translated into huge corruption, siphoning off money at every level. In addition, this ubiquitous corruption alters the nature of political and administrative power, and undermines market forces, efficiency and trust on a much larger scale, retarding economic growth and distorting democracy. Cleansing elections is the most important route through which corruption and mis-administration can be curbed.”

These little battles that help us regain the high water-mark of good governance that democracies are supposed to achieve, are encouraging signs. The process of filing of affidavits by contestants was one such battle, where a hubris-infected Polity finally had to yield ground. The full impact of that would possibly be felt a few years down the line, as more and more citizens start accessing the information.

Similarly, lifting the veil on political and electoral funding is an attempt in the right direction, and I for one, would be keenly following how events unfold on 26 September – and thereafter.

As is often said, when a democracy is “out of shape”, we need people to start “exercising” their rights. And seeking access to information on how the entire political and electoral funding game is played, is a citizen’s right.

Motilal Vora’s hideously clumsy stance on the issue notwithstanding.

Feel free to reach me at shining.path.notperu@gmail.com if you need a copy of the documents pertaining to the CIC hearing that comes up on 26 September. Or you could access them here.