The sub-continental air is thick with elections. With polls completed successfully in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir, elections being held at last in Pakistan giving democracy a modest chance, and Gujarat poll dates to be announced soon, there is talk of political competition and elections everywhere. But the middle classes in the sub-continent in general are showing enormous contempt for the political process. There is very unhealthy cynicism and dangerous yearning for authoritarian solutions. In many ways the three-year dictatorship of Musharraf, and his continued prominence after elections, both as self-appointed president and chairman of the newly created national security council, have been made possible because of the apathy of the elites and middle classes.
While Pakistan and India never fail to flex their muscles and exhibit mutual antipathy, both societies are similar in some respects. We both view elections as mere power struggle, and power as private property. Ideals and ideas, vision and policies, institutional vitality and accountability have very little to do with our democratic process. Understandably therefore, the methods deployed to acquire power are judged only by the success of the outcome, and not by the purity of the means! The candidate disclosure issue which saw complete divergence of opinion between the political elites and the public is an illustration of this relentless pursuit of power as an end in itself. The response of the well-heeled and well-educated to this democratic deficit is one of despair and hostility. But such hostility to political process can only lead to one outcome – authoritarianism by invitation.
We only have to look at Pakistan to realize what such despotism does to a society. The only antidote to the ills of a democracy is more and better democracy. What is needed is painstaking, systematic steps to set our house in order and make democracy real and meaningful. While we haven’t done as well as we hoped over the past 55 years, it cannot be denied that there has been modest progress. And whatever be our failures, democracy is not responsible for them. It is our own inability to evolve truly democratic and fair practices, and failure to adhere to them scrupulously which led to many evil consequences - unbridled corruption being the most visible. The inference is clear; we should quickly address our governance crisis, and engineer democratic reforms.
But even when such attempts are made, as a nation we don’t seem to take any notice of them. It is as if we have a masochistic impulse which makes us love self-flagellation and ignore anything which may improve our conditions. The stony silence which met the Election and Other Related Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2002 (introduced in Parliament in March, 2002) aimed at significant political funding reform, is one illustration of this apathy. This Bill is quite far-reaching in some respects and deserves the serious attention of all concerned citizens.
This Bill, if it becomes law, has five important consequences.
First, every political party will be duty-bound to furnish its accounts to the Election Commission every year. Such accounts of donations and expenditure shall be audited by the auditor approved by CAG, who will have access to all vouchers and records.
Second, parties may accept any amount of donation voluntarily offered by any individual or private companies, excepting foreign sources defined in FCRA. Individuals can contribute any amount, but companies’ contribution is limited to 5 % of the average profit for the previous three years, and all contributions are fully exempt from income tax.
Third, the shameful Explanation 1 under section 77 of the RP Act, 1951 will now be substantially nullified, and as a result all expenditure incurred by the political party or a third party will come within the purview of expenditure ceiling.
Fourth, the government shall supply to candidates of recognized parties copies of electoral rolls, voter identity slips and other materials as prescribed by rules.
Fifth, the EC can now allocate time to recognized parties on the cable television network and other electronic media (in addition to state media).
In any sane democracy, such major political funding reforms would be discussed and debated endlessly and disseminated widely. Somehow, we seem to revel only in vituperative criticism and have no interest in real reform. Happily these reforms have bipartisan support. The Congress party initiated the process with Manmohan Singh Committee, and the ruling combine responded positively. The fact may be that the Bill leaves scope for improvement. True, such a law alone will not eliminate the incentive for illegitimate and high election expenditure (either for ego gratification, or in anticipation of multiple returns in a corrupt system), but it certainly provides for legitimate means of funding, and eliminates the alibi for political corruption on grounds of fund requirement.
Certainly a lot more needs to be done to make our democracy mature and corruption-free. A shift to proportional representation; separation of powers in states; speedy justice; empowered local governments; strong, independent anti-corruption mechanisms, and instruments of accountability – all these are needed. But sensible funding reform is a key ingredient in any reform agenda. Politicians need to be applauded for a welcome, if belated, initiative. Let us condemn what is wrong in politics, but let us not throw the baby with the bath water. We need better and more democracy, and certainly saner and truer politics.