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Thursday, December 02, 2021

The colour of money

It is near impossible to reform an electoral process that ranges from panchayat to Parliament. But transparent sources of funding would be a good start.

Written by Manvendra Singh |
December 27, 2010 1:33:33 am

As if on cue,India periodically begins the debate on public funding for elections. A memory recall reminds me that the Union cabinet cleared the proposal for public funding of elections around this time in 2005. And as far as memory serves,the proposal was sent to the law ministry for approval/processing. Now that sounds exactly like the Afzal Guru file,which is precisely the motive behind the periodical references to this route for electoral reforms.It is everybody’s case that India initiates a thorough reform of its election processes. The Election Commission is the place to begin that process. To think that retired bureaucrats recast in the role of electoral managers would know more about what happens in a district. But alas,they too prefer the sanctuary of platitudes that please and not perform. One size fits all is the basis of Indian governance and its policy formulation. And its bane. How is it possible that Barmer and Bongaigaon be covered by the same set of policies and rules to implement them,when their political experiences and psychologies are completely different?The Election Commission imposes an expenditure ceiling across the country,for every election. How is it possible for every constituency to have the same expenditure ceiling when each is different by geography,population and psychology? Until it was cleaved by the delimitation process,Barmer was bigger in area than Sri Lanka. Yet the Election Commission practices the logic that Barmer must have the same set of regulations as Chandni Chowk,smaller in area than every gram panchayat in the desert. A rationalisation is certainly in order,but one that is based on realities,and not driven by clichés.The most expensive elections in India are the ones that elect the heads of gram panchayats,whatever their names,across the country. They are also the elections that have the highest polling percentages. In its obsession with the Parliament and legislature,urban India forgets that the panchayat election is the most contested of all elections. Per voter there is more money spent in a panchayat election than any other. And in fact the Parliament election becomes the cheapest in that sense. And that matches the polling figures too,with panchayats leading the race,and Parliament bringing up the rear. There are various reasons why the panchayat election is the most contested of all,ranging from prestige in the village to the fact of influencing more development funds than any other elected post. All of this stays under the radar,for it doesn’t make good daily conversation in urban India. This is the reality that the country will have to face before it can begin an honest debate on electoral funding reforms. So where do the panchayat funds come from,when many states don’t have party symbols for those elections? Obviously the money is coming from somewhere,and in proportionately bigger quantities than it does for Parliament elections. Election funding reforms,therefore,must cover the entire gambit of the Indian scenario. It would be discriminatory and snobby if the attention to reform were aimed only at the Parliament or legislature levels. After all,the democratic process covers the entire gamut from panchayat to the Parliament levels. And it is a process that Indians feel proud of sustaining. Can the country,then,manage the reform of the entire spectrum of elections? Knowing the reality of India,and its psychology of political performance,that is a task much bigger than any of the country’s impressive institutions can handle. None of the commissions or the parliamentary committees have the capability of undertaking this responsibility. There is no shame in admitting to this fact,for the simple reason that not everything is always doable. Know the limitation and act accordingly.

The general Indian attitude towards anything that carries a public fund label is that some of it is for the take. It is taken for granted that a portion can be diverted for other ends,and through other means. And with an impossible implementation procedure,it makes little sense to have public funds for elections. There are various proposals doing the rounds,but none that encompasses the sheer diversity and dynamism of Indian elections. Better let public funds remain for public good. The simplest solution,and one that encourages probity and honesty,is for a transparent and private,corporate,business or any other funding that is tracked by sourcing of monies. Let the funding be from any source,by cheques,and through a monitored bank account. There may be an individual bank account for each candidate,party etc. The sourcing for each constituency can be monitored,as also the vested interests that may exist. The vested interests can then be barred from benefiting financially or otherwise. It will then be known that for a particular panchayat election,the local PWD contractors contributed for a particular candidate. That is how it all begins. Let’s get the picture clear first.

The writer represented Barmer-Jaisalmer in the 14th Lok Sabha,and is now editor,‘Defence & Security Alert’

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