Comment Pieces

Bribing one's way through to political power

Posted on January 24, 2014

It is an open secret in India that politicians spend much beyond their mandated limits to get elected to the legislature or to the parliament. The problem has become acute now with the weakening of the party system all across India.

Nowadays, there are no cadres, no volunteers and no committed voters or vote-banks. Money needs to be spent at every step of the way, and it first begins with getting a seat for the contest. Party leaders ask for money from the contesting candidates, first to fuel the campaign at the state level, and secondly to take care of some 'winnable' candidates who cannot afford to spend.

Candidates also need to spend on buying up local level leaders of factions opposed to them and in cases need to buy out independents to retire them from the contest. And finally, booth level workers need money to fuel their enthusiasm. And above all, if a national leader comes to campaign, the candidate needs to spend on bringing in the crowds to the meetings. 

In places like Tamil Nadu, where gathering of crowds is a business in itself, it was a quarter, a plate of biryani and 200 hundred rupees earlier. The 'quarter' refers to a quarter bottle of whisky. Now, with inflation and the rise of expectations, it is much more. It is more or less the same all across India. There have been instances when money had been distributed to voters through milk men and newspaper boys. It has come to such an extent that voters in some constituencies feel cheated after getting to know of payments received elsewhere. 

A cursory estimate of spending in parliamentary elections in the richer states, puts the expenses of a 'serious' candidate around 7-10 crores. We hear of instances when expenses have been around 40-50 crores in some 'prestigious' constituencies. But the expenses allowed by the election commission is so paltry that none of the candidates take it seriously. During election time a hue and cry is raised on how money influences election outcomes and then it is back to normal.   
There are some who ask for the election commission to be strict in its implementation of the law when it comes to election expenses. Some call for state funding of elections and some call for jailing of people who receive money or bribes during election time. There are people who even call for banning of house to house campaigning during election time. We need to get realistic.

But how does one prevent money from flowing into elections? It is tough to prevent it when politicians have the power to decide on who gets the contracts to mine coal and oil, and when billions of dollars are at stake in such decisions. The power to decide on who gets the windfall profits is not going to go away, given our political structure and the state of our economy and when fortunes can be made, fortunes will certainly be spent.

Vigilance by civil society on spending by government and a constant watch on policy decisions and contracting procedures is the only way to prevent windfall profits which would lead to lesser pressure on the political class to spend their way through.

Strict implementation and penalties can work, but not when everyone seems to be flouting the law. For a change, the election commission could look at having realistic spending limits, and try to implement the same instead of having a 'unimplementable' law just on paper.

The party system too has become so weak that most parties have become like fan clubs without any accountability or a sense of direction. It is for 'concerned' citizens to take up the challenge and enroll themselves in parties of their choice and try to influence them from within.

By Venkatesh Kannaiah