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‘Money power is choking democracy in India’

Reuters Mumbai | Updated on March 04, 2019 Published on March 04, 2019

The rare Asiatic lion is no match for India’s democracy. In the 2009 general election, a polling station was set up for a single voter in a wildlife sanctuary. Officials go to ever-greater extremes to ensure voters can cast their ballots, erecting booths in snow-capped mountains and Maoist rebel-affected areas. Unfortunately, politicians, also known as netas, show no similar enthusiasm for stamping out corruption in the electoral system.

India is known all over the world for bureaucracy, yet its elections are a marvel of staggering complexity and surprising efficiency. The last national ballot, held over six weeks and five years ago, swept Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power. The next, which must be held by May, will encompass around 875 million voters, 1 million voting stations, and over 10 million polling and police personnel. Turnout is rising too, with the 2014 count at over 66 per cent. Yet the integrity of the country’s noisy democracy is buckling under the weight of money. The problem has been ignored, even by India’s most anti-graft-minded leader in decades. Modi has started to shift the consensus on how the nation thinks about corruption and tamed high-level crony capitalism, but when it comes to elections, the distortions look increasingly grotesque.

Polls and gifts

The 2019 poll will cost about $8.5 billion, almost double the outlays in the last general election, according to the Centre for Media Studies, a Delhi-based think tank. The tally could be even higher after the limit on corporate donations was abolished last year. CMS researchers have also found, from samples in some States, that up to 37 per cent of Indian voters have received money for votes.

Milan Vaishnav, director of the South-Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the problem is so bad that elections are synonymous with gift-giving, from cash to items as lavish as flat-screen TVs.

The problems start with under-reporting against official campaign-spending caps, currently just under $100,000, per candidate. Acknowledging the practice, the late former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, quipped: “Every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files.” Perhaps because money talks, criminal charges don’t seem to disqualify candidates in India.

Another scourge is so-called paid news.

The sheer sums required to have a viable run in Indian politics limit the candidate pool and, inevitably, encourage those who win office to seek reward, either to repay debts and favours or to build a war-chest for the next campaign.

Fairer elections

The Election Commission has proposed a limit on the anonymous donations parties can receive. However, in isolation, additional limits could prove ineffective given how little respect netas show for existing ones. That’s why greater transparency is also important. India could, for example, eliminate cash donations, said Vaishnav. Making money traceable would make it easier to spot politicians using it in suspicious ways.

Published on March 04, 2019
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