Sshh…. About poll slush!

Election Funding

By Poonam I Kaushish

Money makes the clogged, polluted and corrupt political mare go around, and how! In the on-going Great Indian Dance of Democracy Parties have opened their secret war chests and are busy ‘funding’ their vacuous promises. After all, what better time to hit the jackpot!
Think. In 2017-18, the income of six national Parties stood at Rs 1293.05 crores, but nearly Rs 700 crores of this came from unknown sources as the Election Commission doesn’t require Parties to declare the source of earning below Rs 20,000. Scandalously, since 2004-05 national Parties have collected Rs 9000 crores from ‘nameless’ entities.
Unsurprisingly, the ruling BJP got a total of Rs 1,027.3 crores of which Rs 553.4 crores came from mysterious sources. Naturally, Opposition Parties fared poorly. The Congress netted Rs 199.2 crores of which 119.9 crores were unknown, CPM ‘earned’ Rs 104.9 crores, Mayawati’s BSP Rs 51.7 crores, Pawar’s NCP Rs 8.2 crores, Mamata’s Trinimool Rs 5.2 crores and CPI Rs 1.6 crores.
Undeniably, donations are not altruistic. It is a business proposition and political insurance, a quid pro quo as a Party is not a bank or mutual fund which offers interest and good returns yet businessmen put their money on it. Also it has nothing to do with preference for Parties or their ideologies but all about power.
Any wonder the donation cup overflows whenever a Party is in power at the Centre or States. The modus operandi is simple. A person helps a Party with funds and, in return, gets his job done. It is not for nothing that businessmen are known as king-makers, specially, a handful of top industrial houses which boast about their clout in the corridors of power.
Donations for 2011 and 2004-5 showed how the fortunes of the ruling Party differed from the one out of power. While the then ruling Congress garnered Rs 1,951 crores from unidentified sources, the BJP received Rs 952.5 crores. In 2003-04, the ‘collection’ was opposite. While the
BJP managed over Rs 11.69 crores, the Congress ‘officially’ received just Rs 2.81 crores.
A cursory glance of affidavits filed with the EC over the years revealed the bizarre realities of politics. It showcased significant contributions from several business houses that directly benefited from the Party in power. A metal and mineral baron who had funded the BJP in 2000, became the proud owner of 51% of Bharat Aluminum Co Ltd (BALCO). By paying $121 million sparking off protests that it was under-valuated.
A steel magnate paid Rs 50 crores and got highway construction contracts. Another industrialist paid Rs 50 lakhs to Congress in 2003 and was inducted into the Party. However, in the 2004 Lok Sabha poll he was one of BJP’s highest donors even though he contested on Congress ticket and won. Truly, playing both ends against the middle.
Underscoring the symbiotic and partly antagonistic relations between industry and politics various Governments have tried bringing legislation to regulate Party funds, their distribution and spending during polls by getting them to maintain regular accounts and make these available for inspection. It even held out threats of de-recognition if Parties filed false and incorrect election returns. But nothing worked. Even as poll costs continue to increase.
Parties spend huge amounts for elections but the economics of running a poll campaign remain a hush-hush affair. Primarily, because elections are used to amass wealth for Parties, themselves and future polls. Like politics, polls have become a business — like businessmen, politicians too balk at the idea of controls and regulations. That is why no Party, however vocal about the matter in opposition, has made an attempt at stanching the flow of black money into the electoral arena.
Sadly, there is brazen hypocrisy and humbug in what transpires under framed rules. Today, a candidate spends over Rs 15 crores per election instead of Rs 70 lakhs allowed by the Law. Hypothetically, the minimum amount needed by each Party for the 545 Lok Sabha seats would be Rs 8175 crores. Multiplied by 10 candidates per constituency, it adds up to a mind-boggling Rs 81,750 crores. Are we expected to believe that this amount is collected by cheques?
To end this scourge the Government has mooted electoral bonds to pay for elections and help cleanse political funding. This allows anonymous donations through bonds which can be bought at a bank in denominations ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 1 crore and given to a Party, which can exchange them for cash. But the donor is faceless.
However, the EC opposes this as it would have a “serious impact” and reduce transparency in political funding by legalizing large unknown contributions which can potentially lead to businesses and foreign companies gaining influence over elections. Also, it would be impossible to determine whether donations to Parties came from companies breaking the law, State-owned public sector units or foreign sources.
But, the Government’s explanation that bonds have to be bought at the State Bank and would be “white” does not hold good as anonymity makes it impossible to keep a check on who is funding a Party. The Government for reasons best known to it has taken away checks that ensured only profitable companies which existed over three years could donate. This prevented shell companies being set up to help “round-trip” money or whitewash it by giving it to Parties, while also bribing them in the process.
Questionably, however does it fulfil its objectives — stop generation and use of black money, besides getting Parties to submit their audited accounts regularly? No. Will it stop the use of money power which has become the bane of India’s electoral polities? No way. Will it decrease corruption? Not at all. Bring about the much-hyped and promised transparency? Are you kidding?
More. The proposal lacks vision in respect of who would buy bonds and whether disclosure of the source of money was obligatory on those who buy them. Asserted a former Election Commissioner, “Bonds and donations are welcome but they could be an easy way to launder black money if disclosure of the source is not made mandatory. Transparency on political funding, as in the West, is a must before exemption is allowed.”
The way out? In a milieu where netas have much to lose and public everything to gain by a transparent funding system, unless one determines the sources which should be legally tapped for Party expenses there is little hope of minimizing the evil influence of vested interests. Two, donations should be evenly spread out, not necessarily equally, but perhaps in some proportion to seats in Parliament. Three, State funding of elections and funds be apportioned on vote basis secured by candidates. Four, amount be released to candidates, not Parties. Five, 50% given as advance, pre-election on past performance basis.
In sum, we still have a long way to go before we can make elections free and fair as Parties will continue to stonewall all efforts to come clean on funding. Thus, irrespective of whether a Party is in power, donations must be made public as people have the right to know whether a Party’s stand on a policy is influenced by the source of its funding. Time to end bhrashtachaar. Else our netagan’s tall talk of eradicating corruption will remain empty blabber! ——— INFA