For a few fleeting days after the Tehelka revelations, our somnolent political class actually raised some hopes of reform. There were early signs of responding to people’s urges to cleanse the system. With a few resignations and some withdrawals of support the government seemed shaky. The prime minister characterized the episode as a wake-up call. He pleaded for electoral and other reforms. And then, as suddenly as it all began, the issue got sidetracked. Our politicians promptly went back to what they are good at – petty power games. It was business–as–usual.The message of Tehelka is not about who is in power and who is out. We cannot pretend any longer that there is no corruption, or that it exists only in the lower echelons of government. Corruption pervades the system and is corroding our nation. The industrial class has a great stake in curbing it. In the pre-liberalization era industry had a cozy relationship with politicians and bureaucrats. The entrepreneur paid bribes to secure licenses and then went on to pay monthly or annual mamools to buy peace. Near-monopoly rights to produce and sell within the country, and protection from external competition ensured that the entrepreneur was still a gainer. The manufacturer could produce shoddy goods and sell them to hapless consumers at a premium, covering his costs and corruption, and yet ensuring a tidy profit. But with opening up of the economy and de-licensing of industry, things have changed. Manufacturers are discovering that high quality of goods, competitive prices and corruption cannot coexist. Unless corruption is curbed, the situation for many industries is disastrous. A few months ago, well before Tehelka or BP Verma’s arrest, the small entrepreneurs of Andhra Pradesh have gone on war path and successfully fought the monumental corruption in central excise. As Mark Twain said, nothing concentrates the mind more powerfully than the knowledge that you have only 15 days to live It is now recognized that elimination of corruption is no longer merely a moral imperative, it is an economic necessity.We cannot afford to let politicians get away once again with shibboleths and inaction. What we need is tangible, practical reform. The starting point is campaign finance reform, the contours of which are clearly visible. There are six specific areas of funding reform. Firstly, we should recognize that political activity is a noble endeavour, and should be funded legitimately. Tax credits need to be given for political contributions. Secondly, there should be full disclosure of all funding, both by the giver and the recipient. The accounts of candidates and recognized political parties should be audited the latter by the Election Commission), and made public. Thirdly, the explanation under section 77 of The Representation of the People Act, 1951, which made nonsense of election expenditure ceilings by exempting the money spent by parties and ‘friends’) should go. There should be reasonable ceilings fixed from time to time, and all expenditure should be included in ceiling limits. Fourthly, the candidates should, by law, publicly disclose their assets and incomes including those of the family members). Fifthly, non-disclosure or false disclosure should invite severe, even draconian, penalties, including fines, disqualification, de-recognition of parties and mandatory prison terms both for the giver and the taker. Only when the risk increases with non-compliance, will there be full disclosures. Finally, when these reforms are in place and after parties conform to internal democratic norms, we can think of public funding. Such funding can be indirect in the form of free time on radio and television both public and private) for recognized party candidates. Any direct funding should be non-discretionary and by measurable indicators. To qualify, there should be a vote threshold in a constituency and the candidate will be reimbursed a fixed sum of, say Rs. 5 or 10 per vote obtained.This reform in itself will not eliminate corruption, but it can be a good starting point. We should make it possible for honesty and power to coexist. Campaign finance reform can eliminate the alibi for corruption. But who will bell the cat? The politicians have lost the will to reform. Civil society cannot be an idle spectator. This is too important to be left to our representatives alone. We have reputed and decent citizens in all walks of life. Narayana Murthy, whose corporate responsibility is by now legendary, and Ratan Tata who attempted to create a corpus for honest political funding, and many others who care deeply for clean politics should take the lead. The activists, media, jurists and politicians should all join hands. We owe it to our children to leave a better country behind. The time to act was yesterday. Fortunately it still is not too late.
Wednesday, May 9, 2001