Legitimate promise or illegal lure?

Legitimate promise or illegal lure?

70 years down after Independence, Indias performance on the growth, development and equity fronts presents a mixed bag of glittering achievements and startling failures

70 years down after Independence, India’s performance on the growth, development and equity fronts presents a mixed bag of glittering achievements and startling failures.

A bloodless freedom movement, the achievement of food security a follow green revolution, the sterling performance of constitutional and statutory bodies such as the Union Public Service Commission, the Election Commission and the Information Commission, and the assertion by the three wings of the State - namely the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive - of their autonomy and independence, have all contributed to the feeling that India has come of age as a vibrant and flourishing democratic nation.

In several fields of human endeavour such as higher education (the establishment of Centres of Excellence such as the IITs and IIMs), adventure (scaling the Everest, exploration of outer space and the Antarctic), sports (such as cricket, tennis, chess and billiards, hockey where the country’s representatives have excelled at the international level), there have been achievements that have brought us great satisfaction and pride.

On the other hand, trading in children, honour killings of women, distress in the farm sector resulting in farmers committing suicides and factors such as infantile mortality, poor standards of primary education and the persisting lack of access to basic amenities such as housing and drinking water in several parts of the country are all challenges the country has to overcome with a sense of urgency and determination. There is, in other words, as much cause for joy and celebration in regard to past achievements, as there are reasons for anxiety and concern about the future.

Easily one of the most creditworthy developments of independent India has been the ability to conduct regular, free and fair elections. Thanks to the efforts of the Election Commission, the government of India and the State governments, non-governmental and community-based organisations, as well as the citizens of the country, the voice of the common man is now heard loudly and clearly and, what is more, repeatedly. It can safely be asserted that the election process in India is now as good as its counterpart anywhere else in the world.

While the technical aspects of the electoral process have more or less been fine-tuned to very satisfactory degree, the spirit that drives the system, namely the moral fiber of the political parties, as seen in its translation into the methods adopted for canvassing and seeking support for the campaigns, has often caused concern if not alarm.

The free use of money, the offering of inducements such as liquor and other sops like sewing machines or saris, and the distressing reliance upon divisive considerations such as caste and community to attract voters, are all matters that need to be dealt with decisively and quickly.

In addition, there are other areas which require attention such as ensuring inner party democracy, infusing greater degree of transparency and accuracy into the processes of voting and counting, bringing into the public domain the relationship between business houses and political parties in regard to funding of campaigns.

This is a form of systemic corruption that strikes at the very roots of the democratic polity. Such a malaise is not easily dealt with. Curbing it will require a massive effort of a coordinated nature by many actors including political leaders, civil servants, industrialists, non-government organisations and the people at large.

The Central government has been making tall claims about the various steps it has taken to cleanse the economy, including the controversial demonetisation. While this is not the context to criticise or support that position, it must be noted that, according to reports, about Rs 5,000 crore was spent by political parties in the recently conducted elections in Uttar Pradesh.

The billiards marker had gone on leave at the Nizam Club where this columnist plays the game every day. On enquiry it was learnt that he had gone to his village in connection with the recently conducted elections to the Panchayati Raj bodies in the State. The absence was reportedly rather lucrative as each member of the family above the age of 18 was given a sum of Rs 2000 for casting the vote!

Concerned with the growing menace of the role of money in elections, many countries and the world have been experimenting with methods to contain the practice. State funding of political parties, partially or fully, is one such option.

The question of State funding of elections has been looked into by various committees appointed by the government of India from time to time in the past. These include the Indrajit Gupta Committee, the Law Commission Report of (1999), the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission and the Law Commission of India report on Reforms (2015), while the Indrajit Gupta Committee favoured phased complete State funding beginning with partial funding, with some limitations, the Law Commission Report on the reform of electoral laws suggested the putting in place of an appropriate legal framework before the introduction of State funding. The National Commission did not endorse State funding but agreed that a legal framework for the regulation of political parties would be a prerequisite.

The Second Administrative Reforms Commission also recommended partial funding, while the Law Commission Report on Electoral Reforms felt that complete State funding was not feasible.
Many leading democratic countries of the world including the USA, Japan and Australia have, over the past three decades, experimented with one form of State funding or the other. However, the experience of countries including Italy, Spain and Austria did not show any significant reduction in the election expenditure of political parties even after public funding was introduced.

Given this background and keeping in mind the financial liability that State funding carries with it, it appears unviable option in India at this time. Any case there is the point of view, which can hardly brushed aside, that public funds should be applied for public purposes along and not for political pursuits. Given that view, and the relative lack of success of the system in reducing election expenditure by political parties elsewhere in the world, we may treat the idea is a non-starter.

Decriminalisation of politics is another issue that has received a considerable amount of attention in various quarters. Only recently the Election Commission and the Central government took opposing stands on that issue in a case before the Supreme Court. While the Election Commission wanted the Court to make it possible to disqualify prospective candidates against whom criminal cases are pending, even before conviction, the Central government did not favour that position.

The advocate for the poll panel wanted the court to act proactively to counter stonewalling by Parliament of proposals to disqualify candidates with criminal antecedents from contesting elections. The counsel for the Central government, on the other hand, argued that the judiciary should not venture into the legislative arena which rightfully belongs to Parliament, by creating a pre-condition which can adversely affect the rights of contesting candidates.

It must be understood that a very thin line separates what constitutes a legitimate promise to the electorate when it is a part of the manifesto of a political party, and what can be regarded as a lure to the voters. The distinction between a morally acceptable attraction and an illegal inducement may sometimes be difficult to identify.

Take, for instance, the writing off of farm loans, which nearly every political party is offering now. Firstly, it is doubtful whether a waiver is in the interest of the farming community at all. In fact, from the smallest branch of a private bank in a village to the managements of nationalised banks, the Reserve Bank of India, or even international institutions such as the World Bank, it is an accepted principle that waivers and write-offs are pernicious if not dangerous, steps.

So, such a promise in a manifesto is, prima facie, wrong from the point of view of sound economic management. On the other hand, especially when taken together with the other promises made by the parties, what is promised is most probably not possible of implementation having regard to the likely availability or total resources with the government. Therefore, whichever way one looks at it, such offers are no different, intrinsically, from straightforward gifts such as sewing machines TVs or sarees.

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