It shouldn't be all about the money

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It shouldn't be all about the money

Elected representatives as well as the bureaucracy are immersed in corruption because scant attention is paid to ensuring greater transparency  

The recent Assembly election in Karnataka and the drama that ensued highlighted a number of features of our colourful democracy. The episode brought to the fore disregard of constitutional conventions and abdication of duties by a Governor but at the same time (due to a timely intervention by the Supreme Court) highlighted what a crucial role our institutions play in ensuring that the light of democracy remains bright.

The entire episode especially showcased one of the more disappointing facets of our democratic process: The influence of money in politics. This was especially evident during the 48 hours leading up to the trust vote in the Vidhan Soudha as ordered by the Supreme Court. During this intervening period, there were incessant efforts to lure the MLAs from the Congress and the JD(s) so that the Congress-JD(S) alliance loses the trust vote and the BJP's blatant attempts to subvert the democratic process are successful.

Money, unfortunately, is an ubiquitous element of the political process in India. It often serves as the primary resource employed to win an election as well as the primary motivator behind getting elected. Unfortunately, this is a feature that cuts across all parties and therefore only if the citizens of the country demand more from their elected representatives and their political parties, can India dream of becoming a prosperous, egalitarian and modern democracy.

In this week's article I will examine how money affects the political process and what are the ways in which we, as citizens, can demand more from our politicians. What also warrants examination in this column is how the current government, which harped about being a party that aims to fight corruption, has categorically failed in meeting this objective.

One of the ways in which money is involved in politics is during an election. The General Election in 2014 cost an estimated $5 billion. This would make it one of the costliest elections ever in the history of the world. In order to check the influence that money can have on the election process, the Election Commission (EC) introduced caps on the amount of money that can be spent by a candidate including a Rs 70 lakh-limit during the election campaign. This limit that has been set by the EC is disconnected from reality, as the amounts that are involved in a typical election campaign are much larger. Furthermore, while the EC may be able to keep a track on expenses by a candidate relating to hoardings, hosting a rally etc., smaller expenses and the prohibited use of funds towards purchasing of alcohol often pass under the radar. Additionally, while such limits have been placed on a candidate, currently there are no limits that a party can spend on a particular election campaign. This is a bizarre exception as it incentivises political parties to spend their vast reserves on elections without any reservations or any consequence. The EC must recognize that in order to enable competent, honest people to participate in the election process, some of these basic loopholes need to be fixed.

The next sphere where corruption is rampant and the influence of money is visible is in governance. This is applicable to both elected representatives as well as the bureaucracy. While there are laws in place that specifically deal with corruption by public officials, a large amount of attention is placed on prosecution of offences and very little attention has been given to ensuring greater transparency in the governance process. One way in which this may be done is by ensuring that not only should elected representatives/high ranking bureaucrats be required to disclose the increase in their assets on a year-on-year basis, but similar disclosures by the family members of such elected representatives must be ensured as well. This is because, while in positions of power, it is strange to see the stark transformation of family members of elected representatives/high ranking bureaucrats from regular earning members of society to massive accumulators of wealth. Having such checks in place will help ensure that honest candidates occupy positions of power and influence in our democracy. This in turn will help ensure that the demands of transparence and honesty flow down the chain of command because an honest, competent representative/official will be keen to ensure that the others under their command too adhere to the moral demands of their post.

In terms of how the BJP has dealt with the issue of corruption, the past few years make for grim viewing. In the Karnataka election itself, the entire nation saw the BJP make attempts to "induce" other MLAs to either not participate in the trust vote at the floor of the House or switch over to the BJP. Rumours regarding figures running into hundreds of crores and alleged phone conversations recording such offers were played repeatedly on television. The government has actually diluted laws that are aimed at curbing corruption. Just take the case of the Lok Pal, which the government has failed to appoint till now despite a clear direction by the Supreme Court to do so. In addition, the BJP Government has made it easier to prosecute the bribe-giver but made it harder to prosecute the bribe-taker through its amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act. The government has also proposed changes in provisions of the Whistleblower Protection Act reducing the likelihood of possible scams being disclosed by whistleblowers.

In addition to these changes, this Government has through the introduction of the electoral bonds scheme actually made the process of funding political parties less transparent than it was before. All these changes have been introduced while Prime Minister Modi talks about undertaking "special initiatives" to end corruption by 2022.

We must recognize that the basic reason for corruption in our political process is the huge amount of money that influences politics in our country. In order to minimize corruption, we must take steps to reduce the influence of money in the political process and a responsible government must take a firm stand on the issue and show its citizens how it intends achieve this objective. In this regard, I must admit that while I have often said that this BJP government is an all talk and no action government, it appears that in the case of increasing the influence of money and corruption in politics this government has been hyper active.

(The writer, Jharkhand PCC president, is a former MP and IPS officer. Views expressed are personal)

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