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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Time we looked at the funds of political parties

Bibek Debroy<br> The UTVI channel has used the RTI Act to collect data on income tax returns filed by political parties. The figures are sometimes for 2007-08,sometimes for 2008-09.

Written by Bibek Debroy | New Delhi |
March 30, 2009 3:48:35 pm

The UTVI channel has used the RTI Act to collect data on income tax returns filed by political parties. The figures are sometimes for 2007-08,sometimes for 2008-09. So we know,the largest donors have been Aditya Birla group,Torrent Power,Videocon,Salgaonkar,Dempo,Chowgule,Charitable Trust,Jubilant Enpro,Kamaljit Singh Ahluwalia,Timblo,Prime Builders and Developers,Honda Siel,Trans Indian Freight Services and United Phosphorus.

Why shouldn’t corporate India donate to political parties for the democratic cause? I am told some corporate boards insist donations should be evenly spread out,not necessarily equally,but perhaps in some proportion to seats in Parliament. But that’s not what this list shows. Aditya Birla prefers Congress,Kamaljit Singh Ahluwalia prefers BJP and Honda Siel prefers Samajwadi Party.

Are these donations altruistic,because one subscribes to ideologies of concerned political parties,or is there some quid pro quo? The quid pro quo needn’t be immediate and can also be negative,in the sense that there is plenty of arm-twisting any government can do. How else does one explain the phenomenon of the donation cup flowing over whenever a party is in power,at the Centre or the in States? Rather interestingly,this also applies to the CPM.

Even more intriguingly,STC and MMTC donate to the Congress. Apparently,the law doesn’t prohibit it,provided not more than 5% of profits are donated. However,PSUs subscribing to a particular political party’s ideology suggests one should read between the lines. Clearly,the income,assets and expenditure figures are ridiculous. The figures are probably no more than 10% of right numbers. Otherwise,the 2009 Lok Sabha elections would be impossible,though large chunks of expenditure are borne by individual candidates.

However,there is a point beyond questions of electoral reform and removing unrealistic caps on election expenditure. Civil society is increasingly focused on individual candidates,including their criminal antecedents and financial assets,thanks partly to the Election Commission. By contrast,we don’t seem to pay much attention to political parties — like insisting,for example,that their accounts be audited. Political parties freely run newspapers and TV channels and indulge in other activities on a commercial basis. And rather oddly,one of the longest Constitutions anywhere in the world doesn’t say anything about political parties.

The Representation of the People Act can surely be used to impart greater transparency and accountability. If simultaneously,we remove unrealistic caps on electoral expenditure and eliminate discretion in policy-making (such as land),we will ensure that donations and expenditure flow through monetized and legitimate channels. Case-by-case discretion leads to suitcase-by-suitcase flows.

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