The recent sting operations exposing sleaze of MPs certainly stirred the nation. These exposés pose a formidable challenge to the legitimacy of our political system. But the Government’s frenetic efforts to provide state funding for elections, is a classic prescription of placebos for a deep-rooted political malaise. Public funding in itself, like placebos or vitamins, is harmless, even desirable. But this knee-jerk response does not address the underlying crisis. Two issues need elaboration.
First, already there is significant indirect public funding available to parties in India. The Election and other Related Laws Amendment Act, 2003 was a remarkable piece of legislation accomplished by the good sense of the then NDA government and the opposition Congress. In the wake of the Tehelka episode, Congress party constituted a committee headed by Dr Manmohan Singh, and its report was accepted by the then government, resulting in this law. Explanation 1, under Section 77 of the R P Act, 1951 was effectively repealed, removing exemptions which made a mockery of election expenditure ceiling; full tax exemption was made available to all individual and corporate donors for political contributions; disclosure of all contributions of Rs 20,000 or more was made compulsory; and a provision was made to give free air time to all recognized parties in all channels, including local cable networks. The last of these provisions has not come into effect as the rules have not been made for over two years! Once fully implemented, tax-free contributions and free airtime creatively used in public and private channels will substantially meet the legitimate election campaign requirements. In any case, public funding will have to be within the ceiling prescribed by law (Rs 10 lakhs for Assembly and Rs 25 lakhs for Lok Sabha in most states). Therefore, public funding, though desirable, is of marginal added value.
Second, the high cost of elections is not for legitimate campaigning purposes. Most estimates indicate that about Rs 3 to 5 crores is spent by candidates for Lok Sabha and upto Rs 1 crore for Assembly in many states. In a cycle of five years, about Rs. 10,000 crore is spent on Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. While about 30% of it is legitimate campaign cost, the rest is spent illegitimately to buy votes, bribe officials and hire muscle men. This large expenditure does not necessarily guarantee victory, but strictly lawful means and modest expenditure guarantee defeat in most cases! Any public funding can only help meet the legitimate campaign costs, and does not address the vast, growing illegitimate expenditure.
Why is so much money spent for illegitimate purposes? The answer lies in the nature of our first-past-the-post (FPTP), winner-take-all electoral system in a poor country. Generally, about 90% of the vote is cast on the basis of the party’s image and appeal, or anger against rival parties. But the marginal vote that a candidate manages to secure is the key to victory. Therefore parties, in their desperation, nominate candidates who can muster the marginal vote. Given our conditions, the winning vote to trump the rival is mobilized by money and liquor, caste, muscle power, and strong family roots in politics. This makes parties dependent on local fiefdoms and money bags. Often, both the leading parties deploy similar candidates. In a system of compensatory errors, the misdeeds of each are neutralized by the other, and the aggregate outcome does seem to be broadly reflective of public mood. But given the distortions of candidate nomination, huge, unaccounted expenditure, and unholy means deployed, no matter which candidate or party is elected, the quality of governance is inevitably perverted.
Politics has thus become big business demanding multiple returns. Transfers, contracts, police cases and influence peddling are the chief sources for ruling party legislators. MP or MLA LADS, cash for questions, constituency level public works, and nuisance value are the sources of income for the opposition legislators. Left parties are generally exempt from this, and so are the many honourable politicians of integrity in other parties, who are struggling against great odds to survive in public life with honesty. When the incentives in the political system are grossly distorted, no amount of public funding will address the crisis.
What, then, is the answer? We need to eliminate the importance of the marginal vote in elections. 101 democracies world-wide have party list systems with some form of proportional representation. Only 47 have FPTP system, and many like New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and even Britain (in regional and European parliament elections) have given it up. Once we switch over to multi-member constituencies based on party lists, candidate choice will improve and money power will be irrelevant, as success is not based on marginal vote. This only requires a simple law, as the Constitution permits it. In fact, in 1952 and 1957, we accommodated SC and ST reservations in multi-member constituencies in India.
Will parties listen? Congress, BJP and Left parties have a lot to gain by list system. Already, in most large states the national parties are getting marginalized, yielding space to local parties. This is because their modest vote share does not yield electoral success, and therefore many voters switch loyalties quickly. All parties have stakes in political reform. Rarely do we have a solution which is good both for the nation and the parties. If nothing else, enlightened self interest should propel our parties to reform the system and clean up politics. Symbolic and ritualistic responses will not do.