WHEN political parties in government completely lose the public goodwill and are seen to be brazenly looting the public exchequer, it results in a sense of outrage and public anger erupts. A similar situation is obtaining today with the ruling Manmohan Singh led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre having lost the public trust completely and becoming the subject of public anger. Its record in governance has been abysmally and abominably poor with unabated rise in prices of essential commodities and unprecedented corruption being just two of its stark failings.
A pigheaded government has tried to browbeat the opposition and parliamentary institutions like the Public Accounts Committee, stonewalled criticism from constitutional bodies such as the Comptroller & Audit General (CAG) and the Supreme Court, fiercely attacked Baba Ramdev and peaceful protesters against corruption and black money and paid no heed to the teeming public outrage over a spate of scandals like the 2G scam, Commonwealth games, Adarsh society, ISRO-Dewas deal, Hasan Ali’s exploits and billions of cash stashed away in foreign banks etc.
Nearly three decades after Bofors scandal rocked the Rajiv Gandhi government and resulted in Congress Party’s massive defeat in 1989 parliamentary elections, corruption has become a dominant political issue once again at the national level. For many years, corruption was not a potent electoral issue leading many to believe that corruption does not affect the masses at large and only performance counts. The results of Tamil Nadu assembly elections and the scale of the defeat of the DMK have disproved this theory.
I have a different proposition to offer. Be it corruption or price rise, they tend to become overarching electoral issues when they get focused in public consciousness and have some shock value as well. For instance, a general increase in prices of all commodities may not shock the public as much as say increase in the prices of a commodity like onions. Similarly, several corruption scandals of smaller magnitude may not make corruption a salient issue as much as corruption in one big scandal. 2G scam has proved to be just that. Its magnitude is huge and it remained in public consciousness over a long time.
In the wake of the recent scandals, a number of leading politicians, ministers have been sent to jail and many more are waiting to join them. Is the fear of incarceration enough to make our political class less brazen in indulging in corruption? While this may have a sobering effect on some, this would not be a deterrent for many.
Many prominent and powerful leaders of today who were clerks, drivers and involved in menial jobs not much in the distant past are now associated with staggering wealth running into thousands of crores of rupees. Would a year or two in jail prevent them from resorting to similar scandals in future? One cannot be hopeful. On the contrary, the massive corruption of A Raja in the 2G scam may have raised the corruption bar for many ministers in the UPA government. While this may sound like a bad joke, let me state that it is not so. There are many who have set their sights on breaking the Raja records. A Raja corruption is just the tip of the iceberg. The loot is far too bigger and continuing despite the ongoing developments.
If a jail term isn’t an adequate deterrent, what is it that scares politicians? The biggest punishment that any politician is scared of is loss of political power. They can do without loss of face but they feel highly vulnerable without political power. If they can retain political power despite their indulgence in rampant corruption, they would continue to indulge in such acts.
The key to prevent such brazen corruption is to reform the political system as a whole, ensure that well meaning honest persons enter the political arena and cleanse the process of elections through which the political class acquires the political power. Thus, implementing wide ranging political and electoral reforms is vital for promoting people’s faith in the political class.
Political parties are central to the functioning of a parliamentary democracy. It is through parties that political power is exercised to influence decision making process. For our democracy to succeed and flourish, public faith in our political parties and political class needs to be restored.
Transparency and openness in the functioning of our political parties and particularly in their financial matters is an imperative. This is a legal requirement in most countries and is stringent in countries such as Germany that offer total state funding for financing political parties. Many other democracies have suitable legislation that regulates the functioning of political parties. India needs a similar legislation to properly regulate the functioning of political parties that would lead to the development of a healthy political party system.
Second, the excessive use of money power in elections must be curbed. Though there are prescribed limits for election expenditure – presently the general limit is Rs.16 Lakh for assembly elections and Rs. 40 Lakh in Lok Sabha elections – it is widely believed that the actual expenditures are much in excess of the expenditure limits. Spending race among political parties – a dominant trend in the southern states – affects the purity of the electoral process and makes the electoral arena the preserve of the rich and politicians who have amassed huge wealth through corrupt means. People who get elected through unfair and corrupt means legitimise political corruption as a political imperative. Increasing role of money power in elections needs to be curbed urgently to facilitate entry of good, honest politicians in the electoral arena.
Talking of abuse of money power, the report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, 1999 had observed, “This has progressively polluted the entire system. No matter how we look at it, citizens are directly affected because apart from compromised governance, the huge money spent on elections pushes up the cost of everything in the country…Electoral compulsions for funds become the foundation of the whole super structure of corruption.”
Public funding of parties, elections
Political parties need finances for fighting elections and also for running their activities in between election campaigns. A number of countries have different models of state funding of political parties and elections: minimalist pattern in which only elections are funded partially (United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan etc.), maximalist pattern in which political parties are funded for elections as well as for non-election expenditures (Germany, Sweden) and mixed pattern (France, Netherlands) where matched grants are provided on private contributions received by political parties.
Public funding of parties and elections is accompanied by enforcement of strict transparency and accountability norms and regulation. Most developed democracies have understood this requirement and have therefore provided for financial support coupled with stringent safeguards.
As a part of the much needed electoral cleansing, India needs to move towards what are referred to as ‘clean’ elections, a system of government financed election campaigns which can reduce the corrupting influence of money and to level the field for candidates by giving them enough money to run credible campaigns. This will eliminate reliance on corporate donations and make it possible for political parties and leaders to fight elections without any dependence on corporate donations who invariably seek favours in return for their funding. This mutual dependence leads to an unholy nexus between the political class and large corporates. 2G scam is replete with several examples of how the mastermind A. Raja engaged in a criminal conspiracy to favour certain corporates some of whom were front companies of the UPA’s top leaders.
Role of Media
The Indian media has a strong proclivity towards the Congress party. Large sections of the media protect the Congress party and never lose an opportunity to berate the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the principal opposition party at the Centre. To blunt its unavoidable attacks against every misdeed of the Congress led UPA government at the Centre, the media feels compelled to highlight some shortcoming in the BJP. Thanks to the media’s efforts in painting all parties black, the demonstration of public anger against the present most corrupt central government ever has had an unintended effect: a disdain for the entire political system and distrust of politicians as a class.
The BJP has many leaders with unblemished and clean record in governance. Leaders like Narendra Modi, Shivraj Singh Chouhan etc. in the BJP have a reputation that stands them in good dead. Their repeated election victories are a testimony to their clean record in governance. With such examples, it is clearly established that it pays to be honest in politics. The nation’s public has an onerous responsibility: to punish the corrupt.
People of Tamil Nadu have sent a clear and loud message to the nation in overthrowing a corrupt regime in that state. Would the people of the country rise to the occasion against the egregiously corrupt Congress regime at the Centre come the next parliamentary elections? If the public mood in the country today is any indication, the writing on the wall is very clear: a resounding defeat for the Congress led UPA in the 2014 polls.