H.D. Kumaraswamy, leader of the Janata Dal (Secular) and former chief minister of Karnataka, may have set a new standard for plain speaking. When caught on an audio recording discussing a cash transaction in exchange for supporting a candidate to the state legislative council, he brazened it out, saying other parties did the same thing, that he was only talking about the “hard reality” of politics, and that there was no recording of him actually accepting money.
No matter how he tries to spin it, there is no question that this episode casts a harsh light on the whole matter of elections to the upper Houses of legislatures. Last year, a Congress Rajya Sabha MP from Haryana declared that seats in the Upper House were available for Rs 100 crore. A few years ago, a sting operation revealed MLAs in Jharkhand discussing rates for their votes for Rajya Sabha candidates, and in 2012, Rajya Sabha elections were countermanded by the Election Commission after evidence that “money power” had been used to swing results.
While Indian elections have become more expensive, with more intense competition at all tiers of political activity, membership dues are only a marginal part of the way parties raise money. Campaign spending limits are unrealistic and much of the cash is off-record. From businesspeople directly contesting elections to bankrolling parties, there are many ways in which politics has been distorted by big money and the interests they peddle. Efforts to regulate corporate spending rarely work because businesses that give to parties in the expectation of future benevolence prefer anonymity to tax breaks.
Parties are virtually encouraged to under-report their spending and to favour candidates who can raise their own resources — both of which reinforce the dishonesty in the system. Discretion-laden sectors like spectrum, minerals and land have been central to this collusion between business and political elites.
The Kumaraswamy episode also frames the story of the decline of the upper House of the legislature. While it was conceived as a more sedate site of reflection, one that would allow for the views of states, and a diversity of opinion and experience as a result of proportional representation and nominations, it has been corroded by money power more visibly than the directly elected lower House.