The attack on corruption

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Paying forgood governance... Is State funding of elections the right answer?
Paying forgood governance... Is State funding of elections the right answer?

In the nitty-gritty of political life, wonderful, even brilliant ideas get lost. Truly speaking, implementing them will hurt so many vested interests that they are liable to be discarded.

Ms Sonia Gandhi has launched, as one newspaper put it, a “five-fold attack on corruption”. Mr B. S. Raghavan, goes one better ( Business Line, December 20): he talks of an eight-point plan comparable to the Buddha's eight-point programme. Ms Gandhi's plan is unexceptional. She talks of issues that have been whispered but never taken up seriously before. If, and when, she implements her five-point (or eight-point) plan, we may indeed have an excellent, corruption-free polity.

Why do we say “may” and not “will”? Previous experience of pronouncements from persons in high position raises doubts. The pronouncements are usually gracious; they raise hopes. Unfortunately, in the nitty-gritty of political life, wonderful, even brilliant ideas get lost. Truly speaking, implementing them will hurt so many vested interests that they are liable to be discarded.

Let us consider three of her recommendations, starting with the idea of “fast-tracking all cases of corruption including those involving public servants”. Three months ago, there was a hue and cry over corruption in the conduct and management of Commonwealth Games. It is widely accepted that Mr Suresh Kalmadi, the person in charge, has much to answer for. Even after the issue was raised raucously in all branches of the media, it has taken over three months to raid his residences. People will suspect, rightly or wrongly, that time is being given to him to hide his ill-doing.

Who will fast-track?

In the matter of fast-tracking, Ms Gandhi left out a critical issue: Who will do it? Normally, that should be the CBI. Ms Gandhi could have said — and ordered — that the CBI would be like the Election Commission, a truly autonomous body with powers to prosecute anyone independently and choose the counsel who will argue its case without interference from the Ministry of Law. That would have been a momentous decision. However, the CBI remains merely a servile organisation; it can do only what it is allowed to do. Hence, the idea of “fast-tracking” does not appear convincing. Another proposal of Ms Gandhi is: Congress ministers and chief ministers should surrender their discretionary powers in land allotment and the like. That is excellent; it will surely remove an important source of corruption. At the same time, Ms Gandhi was careful not to extend the idea to herself.

As of today, the Indian National Congress is her family's fief. If she had surrendered her own discretionary authority, that would have set an excellent example. Because she has not, her proposal remains one of doubtful utility.

Paying for elections

I am glad that a person of exceptional authority such as her has suggested State funding of elections. That too is an excellent idea, but with its own pitfalls, mainly in the selection of candidates, who will get State support. Obviously, a prior selection is necessary — else, thousands of candidates will emerge and demand such support. The US has partially solved the problem by having primary elections. Will we have such elections? If so, who will pay for them?

We need an election system in which every person, however poor, can contest and be considered for State support. I had suggested in a recent article that only those who can make an election deposit equal to or more than the full cost of elections may be considered. On second thought, though, that will offer a substantial advantage to very rich candidates. We need a better rule.

Consider who will actually bear the cost if the State pays all election expenses. Obviously, the taxpayers will, and they are of two types: Individuals and businesses. It appears that it would be a good idea to constitute individual taxpayers only as the constituency for a modified form of primary elections: Every candidate prepares a one-page summary of his or her past and plan of action if elected, along with a five-minute video. These are circulated to all taxpayers, who then vote for as many candidates as they desire. Anyone who gets at least five per cent of the total votes polled will get all expenses paid for by the State.

Selection sans ‘High Command'

In practice, the number of those who qualify will not exceed half a dozen at the most — which is manageable. We may kill two birds with one stone by allowing every party member the freedom to contest without interference or selection by the “High Command”. That will ensure true divestment of discretionary powers. If Ms Gandhi agrees to it, she will set an excellent example to all her ministers and other parties too.

But why only individual taxpayers? First, they are the paymasters. Second, their names can be obtained easily, transparently: There is no controversy about who will or will not be included. Third, they may vote for as many candidates as they like and, yet, only a bare 5 per cent of support is adequate to be selected for State support. The suggestion that a voter can choose several candidates is useful particularly when several persons from the same party contest.

We may add that a person who cannot get even 5 per cent of the votes does not deserve to get the taxpayers' money. Will Ms Gandhi be interested enough to try this?

(The author is a former Director, IIT, Madras. Responses to and is 293rd in the Vision 2020 series. The previous article appeared on December 13.)

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 27, 2010)
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