Various options like using social media, state funding should be explored to find a radical solution to the rising problem of black money in Indian electoral politics
By raising the ceiling on expenditure from Rs 40 lakh to Rs 70 lakh for a Lok Sabha candidate to spend in the 2014 election, the government may have satisfied a couple of political parties. But it could be accused of making elections in India the most expensive in the world, apart from making a level playing field a distant dream.
The Union cabinet took this decision as recommended by the EC, which in turn did so based on demands of political parties it had consulted. Only one or two opposed the move. The excuse given for the increase was that the number of polling stations has gone up, although that increase is only marginal.
This move, together with increased use of television advertising, has pushed the expenditure in this 2014 Lok Sabha poll in the vicinity of Rs 30,000 crore. That is an expense of Rs 400-500 per voter. But assuming a voter turnout of 75 per cent in this Lok Sabha poll, the expenditure works out to Rs 550-650 per vote cast.
This Rs 30,000 crore-plus estimate for 2014 is against around Rs 10,000 crore estimated by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) as expenditure in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. It has steadily been rising. From Rs 2,500 crore expenditure in the 1996 Lok Sabha poll, it has increased tenfold. Increase in competitive electoral politics of the country is mostly responsible for this substantial increase in election expenditure, which in turn could be correlated to increasing corruption in the country during these years.
This estimate for 2014 is the outcome of an elaborate analysis based on a variety of past and present trends of the political parties in contest, keenness in contests, candidate characteristics, campaign monitoring, field observations, large-scale survey data, updating with pre- and post-poll sampled interviews. This estimate includes expenditure involved at four different levels — EC and various government departments of states and the centre, political parties, contesting candidates and others (like corporate/industry, lobbies). CMS started tracking poll expenditure in 1996.
By increasing the ceiling on election expenditure of individual candidates contesting not only for Lok Sabha, but for state assemblies, the government has now reminded us that the use of money power has assumed threatening proportions in the Indian electoral system. And yet, only West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has come out openly criticising the official increase in ceiling on poll expenditure. Clearly this implies increase in the expenditure allowed at the elections for assembly and other local bodies.
The increase at this point should be of particular concern as a high percentage of those who in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll showed substantially less expenditure than what the ceiling was at the time. If elections are contested on an issue basis sensitising and involving voters so that they become active citizens, one can perhaps justify such high expenditure. But the 2014 poll is proving to be a bitterly fought one without issues.
How much do elections cost India for Lok Sabha down to state assemblies, zilla parishads and panchayat level over a five-year period? Assuming that all these elections take place at different times during a five-year period, the expenditure involved now would be in the vicinity of Rs 1.5 lakh crores! Needless to say, much more than half of this would be unaccounted.
Since CMS exposed the extent of “note-for-vote” phenomena in a nationwide large survey in 2007 (refer Transparency Review – www.cmsindia.org), EC took several initiatives to curb the flow of cash on the eve of the elections.
That is how we now see a number of stories in the media – both national and assembly elections — on large cash seizures from the unlikeliest of places: an ambulance, a helicopter, car tyre tubes – literally from anywhere. The EC has inducted senior observers, including officers of the Indian Revenue Service (IRS), to track and bring to book such unaccounted expenditure by candidates.
Andhra Pradesh’s case is interesting and unprecedented. CMS studies in the last decade indicated that AP is one of the states where more than half the voters are distributed cash on the poll eve; also what is given is much higher than in most other states. Between March and May 2014, the state will go for elections to the Lok Sabha, assembly, municipalities, corporations and mandal panchayats. While Lok Sabha and assembly polls are held together, the other elections are held separately. In all, 42 Lok Sabha seats, 287 assembly, 156 municipalities, 22 zilla parishads, 1,096 mandal parishads and 16,589 MPTCS will be elected in this time period.
This time, there will be far keener contests between four or more different parties. A quick estimate of what is likely to be spent by candidates in all in these various polls in AP during this quarter shows it would be not less than Rs 7,000 crore and it should not be a surprise if it goes beyond Rs 10,000 crore. Against a ceiling of Rs 2 lakh by EC, 10-20 times more money can be expected per member.
According to a report, for example, election to the Vijayawada municipal corporation (with 59 divisions) is expected to be close to Rs 100 crore, including what goes into the election of mayor. And all this in a matter of 20 days! This despite the fact that the Vijayawada corporation has not been able to pay even pay salaries on its own. It is a four-cornered fight. Since the announcement of elections to local panchayats in Andhra, Rs 50 to 80 lakhs is being seized daily in the state by police at entry points of towns. But these are only symbolic. This estimate does not include what is spent towards getting nomination of the respective party. In the week after these polls were announced, nearly Rs 10 crore has been seized in Andhra Pradesh.
Although corruption is much talked about as a national malaise, one aspect that has not been seriously pursued is the “note for vote” system which is depriving the country of good governance and is threatening the very roots of democracy and development. That, in fact, is the source and origin of cycle of corruption in the country. That is why I describe it as the “mother of all corruption” in the country.
This phenomenon has not drawn the attention of anti-corruption crusaders, political leaders or even the mass media as it should have been by explaining to voters what accepting cash doles in lieu of vote, means to them individually over the next five years. On the contrary, media has reported that poll eve expenditure gives boost to the economy and to consumer markets when in fact it is eroding the very fundamentals of democracy and development of the country.
By hyping their coverage, reiterating that candidates are crorepaties, contractors or rich corporates, the news media is unwittingly adding to the expectations of voters based on its annual corruption studies. CMS had indicated that voters would in all likelihood end up paying individually 10 times more as bribe in their availing basic public services that they are entitled to otherwise in the normal course, simply because they succumbed to the freebees and cash on the eve of elections.
With one-third or more of news media in the country slipping into control of corporates and political leaders, we cannot expect to curb the phenomena of paid news on the eve of elections. “Quid pro coverage or reporting” has now acquired threatening proportion in driving public opinion trends and priorities of the day.
Betting on who wins or loses or which party gets what number of seats is yet another transaction that is reported on the eve of assembly and lok sabha elections. This too would run into crores. This happens across the country close to polling dates and more in between the day of polling and day of counting. Although this has less to do with the core of elections as such, the fact that it is often reported prominently in the news media tends to influence voter perceptions and expectations. With extensive use of social media now, satta bazaar-centred betting is likely to receive a boost.
The EC views and approaches these trends more as curbing black money in election campaigning rather than to assess its implications or good governance and corruption involving the citizenry. There is a limit what the EC could do in this regard without serious realisation on the part of the voters, political leaders and the news media.
We need to ponder over the continued desirability of the “first past the post” system of elections itself. “State funding” of polls is being talked about. We also need to look into whether partyless polls will reduce the role of money at various levels of elections. Political advertising on television needs to be regulated too, before it vitiates the very electioneering process.
Can news media/social networks be promoted especially in such a way that enormous amounts need not be spent on poll campaigns? I feel a search for alternative ways of electing peoples representatives have to be explored – for all levels of governance.
(The author contributed this article to financial Chronicle for the opinion column, published on April 11, 2014 )