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Saturday, March 17, 2001

Tarun Tejpal, Aniruddha Bahal and Matthew Samuel of have done a great national service by exposing the pervasive corruption in the establishment. But it will be a great national tragedy if these exposes are regarded as a juicy scandal to embarrass the ruling combine or promote the prospects of the opposition. That was how the political establishment responded to the Bofors revelations in 1987. Fourteen years later the system reeks of corruption, and none of the culprits have been brought to book. Jain Hawala and other scandals followed the same pattern. The real lessons of Tehelka exposures are elsewhere. Every bit player in politics and government knows how rotten our establishment is. A humble sarpanch or a petty clerk can tell us hair-raising tales of corruption in government. A town planning officer in a mid-sized city rakes in a crore of rupees a year. Our political system is built on the foundations of corruption. We have come to a stage when honesty is no longer compatible with political survival. Prime minister Vajpayee has gone on record that every elected legislator starts his career with a big lie  by signing an affidavit that his election expenditure was within the ceiling prescribed by law. The estimated expenditure incurred by parties and candidates for Lok Sabha and state Assembly elections is of the order of about Rs.7000 crore. Strangely, this figure in absolute terms is comparable to the exorbitant election expenditure in the US. In the 2000 elections in the US for the presidency, both houses of congress, gubernatorial offices and state legislatures, the total expenditure was estimated to be about $ 3 billion. About half of it was incurred for issue-advertising by political action committees PACs) and pressure groups. The actual campaign expenditure was probably about $ 1.5 billion, which is almost exactly the amount spent in Indian elections When you consider the high purchasing power of rupee as opposed to its low exchange value, our real expenditures is about five to six times that in the US. Yet, our income per capita is nearly one-eightieth 1/80) of that in the US. Adjusting for our higher population, and relative to per capita income, our per capita election expenditure is several times about 20 times in purchasing power terms and 100 times in absolute terms) that in the US But with two crucial differences  in the U.S every dime and dollar collected and spent are fully disclosed and accounted for, and over 70 of the expenditure is on the television advertising. In India there is no disclosure, and most expenditure is for illegal purposes. And yet, there is enormous concern in the US about the fund collection efforts, likely corruption, the link between campaign contribution and governmental decision making and patronage, and so on. But in India, the media and the establishment take each expose of the type as another juicy scandal to bring excitement to our drab lives or presage change of players in the game of power. The high and illegitimate election expenditure inevitably lead to massive corruption at every level and in every sector. Corruption in defence deals is obviously more dramatic because of the centralized decision making, and the emotions roused on account of national security implications. But every one with a modicum of understanding of our politics knows that even minor parties collect and spend tens of cores of rupees. Powerful regional parties in major States spend about Rs.300 – 400 crore in a general election, and national parties and their candidates spend probably Rs.2000 – 3000 crore in all elections over a five-year period. The money raked in through collusion and extortion is astronomical. The actual corruption is a hundred fold to satisfy the greed of politicians and bureaucrats and to cover the political and legal risks. It is time the political establishment converted this scandal and crisis into an opportunity. All parties should honestly introspect and use the opportunity to comprehensively reform our electoral system. Accessible and fair voter registration process, elimination of polling malpractices, decriminalization of politics, transparent and accountable campaign finance with full disclosure and severe penalties for noncompliance, creation of opportunities for raising funds for legitimate expenditure, and political party reform to enforce internal democracy and transparency should be the cornerstones of any such electoral reform. But we should not stop at that. The first-past-the-post FPTP) system of elections we adopted is guaranteed to enhance electoral corruption in a poor country like ours. We should switch over to proportional representation PR) with a reasonable threshold levels of, say 10 valid vote in a major State for parties to be eligible for representation. We can combine this PR model with FPTP to get the benefits of both systems. We need to reexamine the cabinet system in States. While the parliamentary executive model is ideal in a plural society at the national level, in States there is no logic or rationale not to separate the legislature from the executive. A directly elected executive accountable to State Assembly  as in Israel, or with clear separation of powers as in US, will significantly reduce corruption levels. We need to consider such an improvement in States and local governments. We also need a properly designed right to information law. The NDA government bill is very defective and needs substantial improvement. Finally, we need to reform our judiciary to make speedy, accessible and efficient justice a reality.The prime minister and leader of opposition owe it to the country to respond to this challenge and work hard to enhance the legitimacy of the political system. Instead, if we continue with our political games as usual, it will be a real national tragedy. A priceless opportunity would have been once again squandered, and the nation will sink deeper into crisis of legitimacy and governance. What we need today is courageous and far-sighted leadership from all parties.

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