Poll spending: Why netas should stop being hypocritical about Munde

Gopinath Munde’s reference to a purported expenditure of Rs 8 crore to win his Lok Sabha seat in 2009 has naturally set off a political storm. It has also led to issuance of a notice by the Election Commission of India, for such expenditure was a violation of the election rules. One does not know if it would trigger changes in the system.

The EC’s move is understandable and justified, even desirable. It had to act. What Munde said was indeed mea culpa in public. But it requires gumption to come out with something like this. Politicians speak in private about the huge costs for a seat but shy away from a public admission of it.

The BJP leader is not naïve that he thinks he could get away with it or, to give a generous construct to it, is trying to raise a public debate. The second seems to be the case because the country has been living in denial about these costs which translate to corruption. Munde had said as much.

BJP leader Gopinath Munde. PTI

BJP leader Gopinath Munde. PTI

Let us go by the quote in The Times of India: "I (had) spent Rs 29,000 when I (had) contested my first assembly poll in 1980. Rs 8 crore were spent for my last (2009 Lok Sabha) election." The Economic Times reported that he dared that he be disqualified, for he was raising the issue of public funding of candidates.

Munde is right and also courageous. Those, especially politicians, who now start the clamour for his disqualification, are people living in glass houses. You would hardly find a single politician who has won an assembly or a parliamentary seat by limiting the expenditure to the Election Commission prescription.

Yesterday, Sanjay Nirupam, an MP spoke out for the need to disqualify Munde, now an MP from Beed. If their intent is to curb such funding, they are going about it wrong. They fail to realise that Munde ought not to be target, but the compulsions which force such expenses ought to be. The limit is small change to what is normally spent.

Even Rajya Sabha seats, to which persons are elected by a collegium comprising legislators, do cost a pretty penny from what one hears in corridors of power. Sometimes the votes have to be bought, and in narrow contests, loyalties retained. The law that ballots be shown to party whips before casting them may not have eliminated this menace.

This means, it is likely that only those who are nominated to Rajya Sabha, because of their eminence, wisdom, contribution etc. may have not spent money to get there. Who knows, going by the current trend of monetising everything, even these could be suspect in the future. Who knows?

That is why it does not lie in the mouth of any politician to critique Gopinath Munde’s boldness and demand that he be dealt with by the Election Commission. Manish Tiwari, as Congress spokesperson has said, "It is in the nation's interest, and the responsibility of the EC." Only, cheaper election campaigns, however, are in the nation’s interest, too.

Fudging the election expenses is an art and an unfortunate necessity in India because the limit of Rs 40 lakh per candidate is absurdly, laughably low for a variety of reasons: the expanse of the constituencies, the number of voters, and the level of competition and the need to insure a victory. Creative accounting is a practice.

Many politicians who have won or lost elections have been saying for decades that the prescribed limit for a Lok Sabha seat was not enough to win even a municipal ward in a civic election for the cited reasons, and because of the need to buy votes. Apart from caste and other factors, ability to buy votes is a determinant of the cost.

Municipal elections themselves have gone beyond the reach of the ordinary aspirant which ought not to be the case even in municipal elections where the race should be devoid of ideology except for a commitment to improve the quality of life of the citizens to the extent the city governments can ensure within the resources.

Given the contracts, the kickbacks, these are sought after. And the seeker has to be someone blessed with another politician, a party, and vested interests. That is why a well-meaning citizen cannot stand for a ward seat of a municipal councillor and win. That is why they do not, either.

The number cited by Munde is par for the course though in some difficult constituencies, it may be even higher. However, none else who has grumbled in private does come out for the precise reason of not wanting to risk disqualification. You can’t be spending oodles of money and then keep arguing your case before the EC and lose what you spent to win.

It is not that India has not seen inexpensive elections. It has seen several to be sure. I have heard of how KS Raghavachar, contesting on a socialist ticket, had won the elections to the first Lok Sabha in 1952 by writing post cards to the voters in his Hindupur constituency. That was not an exceptional case then. It would be impossible now.

Many others, too, who were elected to Parliament in the past were not rich nor were backed by any vested interests which opened up the purse strings. Nor, for that fact, they enriched themselves because they were politicians. In those days, getting to Parliament, the legislatures, even the city civic bodies and gram panchayats, had only a non-venal public purpose.

I’d wager that given the middle class anger at corruption which has touched all parties, if elections did not cost as much as they did, there would be cleaner politicians in our law-making bodies. But then, money would be spent to defeat such candidates because they would be a threat to the system feeding off black money.

If such money was not to be spent, and therefore, money was not to be earned to off-set such spending, India would have been morally an upright country. The temptation to earn a bit more to line the pockets would not exist. Politicians would not have themselves become vested interests. But that is a whole lot of ifs and buts.

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