By Jagdeep S Chhokar
Is the title sensational? Yes.
Is it appropriate or justified? Please decide after you have read the piece.
“This is the only reasonable interpretation of the provision which would carry out its object and intendment and suppress the mischief and advance the remedy by purifying our election process and ridding it of the pernicious and baneful influence of big money” (Italics added).
The Supreme Court of India referred to “the pernicious and baneful influence of big money” on the election process in the above words written in 1975, a full 40 years ago, in the judgment of the case Kanwarlal Gupta versus Amar Nath Chawla (1975, 3 SCC 646). The context of the Supreme Court judgment was indeed nothing else but the impact of money, in the specific case in the form of the expenditure incurred by a candidate during election. The Supreme Court formulated the question as “Can the limit on the expenditure be evaded by the candidate by not spending any money of his own but leaving it to the political party or his friends and supporters to spend an amount far in excess of the limit?”
The Court held that the expenditure incurred by the political party, and friends and supporters of the candidate should be included as the expenditure incurred by the candidate. Explaining its decision, the Court said that unless this was done, “the beneficial provision enacted in the interest of purity and genuineness of the democratic process would be wholly emasculated. The mischief sought to be remedied and the evil sought to be suppressed would enter the political arena with redoubled force and vitiate the political life of the country. The great democratic ideal of social, economic and political justice and equality of status and opportunity enshrined in the Preamble of our Constitution would remain merely a distant dream eluding our grasp.”
Believe it or not, the above logic did not appeal to the political establishment. Almost immediately after the judgment, an Ordinance was issued to amend the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (RP Act) nullifying the effect of the judgment. Subsequently, the amendment of the RP Act was passed by the Parliament and made effective retrospectively, from 19 October, 1974, which, unsurprisingly, was the actual date of the judgment of the Supreme Court, removing any doubts whatsoever if anyone entertained them, about the intentions of the political establishment!
Cut to 2013
Political parties, all six which have been declared as ‘national parties’ by the Election Commission of India (ECI) clarified their intentions on this issue again in 2013 for anyone who was interested. As a culmination of a seven-year effort, the Central Information Commission declared the six national parties to be public authorities under the Right to Information Act (RTI Act) on 3 June, 2013. All the six parties royally and blatantly ignored the order of the CIC, the highest statutory authority in the land for administering the RTI Act. Why? Because it has the potential of bringing transparency to their financial dealing.
The Chhattisgarh Tapes
The disclosure of the Chhattisgarh tapes by Ashutosh Bhardwaj in The Indian Express on 30 December, 2015 possibly provide yet another example of the “the pernicious and baneful influence of big money” on the election process that the Supreme Court pointed out a full 40 years ago. The purported conversations seem to indicate that “a financial deal could have led to the withdrawal of a Congress candidate from Antagarh Assembly by-election in 2014 to let the BJP win.”
While the Congress candidate, who withdrew his candidature at the last moment, now seems to be complaining that promises made to him have not been kept, the only candidate left in the fray except the eventual winner, “Rupdhar Pudo, the Ambedkarite Party of India candidate who lost the election, filed a police complaint alleging he was contacted by OP Gupta, personal secretary to Chief Minister Raman Singh, and told to withdraw from the fray in exchange for ‘anything’.”
The NOTA Angle
There is an interesting lesson in the Chhattisgarh case which also had its echo, not surprisingly, in the recent local body elections in Gujarat. In the Antagarh election, the winner, Bhojraj Nag, polled 63,616 votes. The only other candidate left, Rupdhar Pudo, polled 12,086 votes but 13,506 were cast for NOTA. The fact that second-highest number of votes were cast for NOTA is possibly a clue that the electorate was not happy with what was going on during the election process.
The situation in the recent local body elections was not entirely different. Money was reported to be widely used in ‘persuading’ candidates to withdraw candidatures resulting in a large number of ‘unopposed’ candidates who were then declared elected unopposed. This gave rise to a demand for provision of a NOTA button even in so-called unanimous elections so that the voters are not deprived of their right to exercise a choice and voting in the election is not deprived by devious use of money. This logic is supported by the Supreme Court judgment on NOTA.
It is therefore not impossible that NOTA can provide a way out of the strangulation of democracy by political parties through the illicit use of money.
And now, back to the title:
It is quite clear that illicit use of money has immense potential to frustrate the will of the people which is the essence of democracy.
Political parties, all of them, have actively been resisting all attempts at bringing in any transparency to the use of money in elections and in running political parties.
If this is not the killing of democracy, then what is?
The author is a former professor, dean, and director-in-charge of IIM-Ahmedabad, and a founder-member of the Association for Democratic Reforms, one of the petitioners in the Delhi High Court. Views are personal