The Hindu
Shailaja Chandra
New Delhi

Cleansing political parties and elections of illegal money is the first step towards tackling the evil of graft

Corruption is nothing but a reflection of the distribution of power within societies. The country is where it is because the political system is self-perpetrating and no party is accountable to anyone except a coterie of people that dominates all decisions. Unless the political system is accountable, going after individual cases of corruption will achieve little.

Slew of anti-corruption bills

By making a single point demand for a Jan Lokpal, to the exclusion of all else, Anna Hazare’s agitation became circumscribed by its own rhetoric. Expectedly, the government response was a slew of anti-corruption bills that have been introduced in Parliament, unheard of in the annals of the past six decades. From 2010, in a span of just two years, as many as 10 anti-corruption bills have been tabled including the disputed Lokpal bill, the forfeiture of benami property, foreign bribery, money laundering, and whistle-blowing bills plus five more — all aimed at deterring specific acts of corruption or purporting to give corruption-free public service as a right. And it was not just the Central government that showed this eagerness. Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha have actually enacted laws which can result in the attachment of ill-gotten property of public servants — sometimes pending investigation.

Undeniably, the citizenry will applaud such measures, frustrated and angry as people are about corruption. But wittingly or unwittingly, this response has deflected attention from a much larger issue. None of the bills or laws addresses the fountainhead of corruption — the opaque management of political parties which includes the source and deployment of their funds.

The second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC 2009) underscored the large-scale criminalisation of politics, illustrating how the participation by criminals in the electoral process was “the soft underbelly of the Indian political system” leading to “the flagrant violation of laws, poor quality of services, protection from lawbreakers on political, group, class, communal or caste grounds, partisan interference in the investigation of crimes, the poor prosecution of cases, inordinate delays that last for years, high costs of the judicial process, mass withdrawal of cases and indiscriminate grant of parole.”

What is of great importance is the open admission that votes are in fact secured through large, illegal and illegitimate expenditure on elections. This has been termed as the starting point of corruption making cleansing elections the most important route to bringing principles into politics. The Lokpal brouhaha has deflected attention from issues infinitely more important for going after dishonest politics, which seems to be all-pervasive.

And the context matters too. Much of India lives in as unequal a world — comparable in fact to pre-industrial Britain. Feudal mindsets prevail and the exercise of patronage is expected. In addition, in India, money power can control decisions the voter makes. Bound by the mores of a largely agrarian way of life, the poor remain simultaneously protected and penalised not by the law and the police as much as by feudal lords, often having criminal records. Indian political parties had long used these local sardars and strongmen as trusted allies for defeating opponents. But the latter have moved up in life by increasingly joining the political fray as candidates — not just supporters, and they have joined to win.

According to the Annual Report of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), among 543 elected Members of Parliament who were elected in the 2009 election, 162 (30 per cent) had criminal cases pending. Five years earlier, that figure was 24 per cent. Meanwhile, the votes needed to win a seat have fallen to as low as 15 per cent. Criminal elements that once pulled in votes for party candidates are now getting voted to power themselves, gaining social respectability and public esteem in the bargain. Meanwhile, campaign-spending limits being easy to flout, buying the voter is easily managed.

More worrisome than individual corruption is the widespread concern that funds are collected by political parties and parked in secret bank accounts abroad to be ploughed back to finance elections often by hook or by crook. Since fund management is confined to a handful of people in each party, it gives enormous power to the top leadership which controls the deployment of funds and all that accompanies it. When the choice of candidates is intrinsically linked with money power, quid pro quos, and IOUs, clean candidates without money or political pedigree do not stand a ghost of a chance. And it goes without saying that once illegal and illegitimate expenditure is incurred on winning elections, there can be no prospect of honest dealings thereafter.

In the OECD countries with which we frequently draw comparisons, three qualities on a scale of eight, considered the most important attributes required from members of the political executive are objectivity, impartiality and neutrality. In those countries, a Minister is expected to publicly commit himself to observing ethical principles if he is to set an example to public servants.

In India, talk of ethical conduct is laughed at; civil servants take their cue from the standards of probity they are witness to — superiors in the service and their political bosses. Until political parties field clean candidates and promote and reward them, a climate of ethical dealings simply cannot emerge.

Expecting the clean up to come only by reinforcing anti-corruption laws though necessary, will divert attention from the real issue of corruption — how political parties collect funds and give tickets. The only way this can change is by educating voters on the dynamics behind the power play. Simply put, it means having knowledge about the origin of party funds to provide insights into the interests that back a political party. Equally how such contributions might influence future policies —including the future outlook for using public funds and natural resources.

It should come as no surprise that when ADR sought information on political party funding, using RTI, all political parties with the exception of the CPI (M) responded that they were not bound to provide such information. This, when income tax exemptions worth hundreds of crores of rupees, land and accommodation at nominal rates, and free airtime, are all provided at public cost. A full bench of the Central Information Commission (CIC) met in September to take a view on this. But major political parties shied away.

The key issue

Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely that the sources of party funding would be declared in the foreseeable future. But that is the key to understanding the compulsions of political parties and the decisions they make. One way of overcoming the clandestine collection of election funds would be to introduce state funding of elections as so many countries have done. More importantly there is a need for laws that mandate transparency in the deployment of political party funds coupled with rules that democratise inner party functioning. Unless the monopoly that a small clique that holds the reins of power in almost every party is freed, new blood can never transfuse into the political arena.

A Bill called the Registration and Regulation of Political Parties (2011) has been drafted by a committee chaired by Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, former Chief Justice of India. The bill includes a democratic process for selecting party office-bearers as well as those given the ticket. It talks of limits on donations by individuals and corporations, suggests penalties for non-compliance and addresses the vexed question of how to deal with support groups that spend money that remains unaccounted for in the candidates’ election expenses.

It is legislation like this that the country needs. Much more than a Lokpal. It is only when political parties become answerable that clean candidates will emerge. Then alone might the use of public funds for private gain halt.

(A former civil servant, Shailaja Chandra is the Vice President of Initiatives for Change-Centre for Governance, a think tank that supports social reform.)

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