OPIN­ION

In all th­ese years, po­lit­i­cal par­ties have put up strong re­sis­tance to pro­gres­sive elec­toral re­forms

DNA (Delhi) - - NEWS - BY IN­VI­TA­TION NI­RAN­JAN SA­HOO The au­thor is Se­nior Fel­low, Ob­server Re­search Foun­da­tion, New Delhi

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties have put up strong re­sis­tance to pro­gres­sive elec­toral re­forms re­gard­ing po­lit­i­cal fund­ing, writes Ni­ran­jan Sa­hoo

On Oc­to­ber 3, the Supreme Court is­sued a se­ries of no­tices to the Union govern­ment and the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion of In­dia while hear­ing a pub­lic in­ter­est lit­i­ga­tion (PIL) filed on be­half of two prom­i­nent democ­racy watch­dogs; namely the As­so­ci­a­tion of Demo­cratic Re­forms (ADR), and Com­mon Cause. The PIL was filed to chal­lenge five amend­ments made to the statutes in Fi­nance Act 2016 and Fi­nance Act 2017 al­legedly open­ing the door for un­re­stricted cor­po­rate fund­ing to pol­i­tics and anony­mous fund­ing by In­dian and for­eign en­ter­prises. This apart, the PIL had sought a ban on cash do­na­tions to po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

One may re­call that for the first time the Union Bud­get for 2017-18 de­voted an en­tire sec­tion on is­sues gov­ern­ing po­lit­i­cal fund­ing. New pro­pos­als such as the re­duc­tion of cash do­na­tion to Rs 2,000 per per­son and the in­tro­duc­tion of elec­toral bonds were the key high­lights. Com­ing against the back­drop of the de­mon­eti­sa­tion drive, many thought the govern­ment of the day was se­ri­ous in ad­dress­ing black money chal­lenges in po­lit­i­cal fund­ing.

The new pro­pos­als ig­nited a lot of cu­rios­ity and high hopes, but were full of loop­holes and con­tra­dic­tions. First, while the amend­ment to dras­ti­cally cut the cash do­na­tions to one-tenth was a wel­come move, it still left enough room for po­lit­i­cal par­ties to mis­use the amended pro­vi­sion, even at the cost of mul­ti­ply­ing the num­ber of fic­ti­tious donors. Sec­ond, while many hailed elec­toral bond as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mea­sure to “in­fuse demo­cratic pro­cesses with white money” as it aimed at cheque and dig­i­tal pay­ments en­sur­ing the iden­tity of donors, its most glar­ing fail­ure was anonymity. Though the scheme is still bet­ter since the iden­ti­ties of anony­mous donors are main­tained in the form of cheques and dig­i­tal trans­ac­tions, it hardly ad­vances the cause of dis­clo­sure and trans­parency.

The pe­ti­tion­ers’ prin­ci­pal claim that amend­ments ini­ti­ated via Fi­nance Act 2017 would open flood­gates for un­con­trolled cor­po­rate fund­ing is based on fairly ro­bust ev­i­dence, even if much of it is anec­do­tal. For starter, among the known sources of do­na­tion to par­ties between 2012-16, cor­po­rate con­tri­bu­tion formed a stag­ger­ing 89 per cent of to­tal con­tri­bu­tion. It is widely known that pri­vate busi­ness and in­ter­ested par­ties bill a large por­tion of do­na­tion to par­ties, and on oc­ca­sions pri­vate busi­ness bankroll en­tire elec­tion cam­paigns in In­dia (ie, the Reddy broth­ers in Kar­nataka). Given the fact that states in In­dia re­tain huge con­trol over the econ­omy and reg­u­la­tory poli­cies, they can­not af­ford to dis­please the po­lit­i­cal masters.

This phe­nom­e­non is not unique to In­dia, even more ad­vanced democ­ra­cies like the United States and Ja­pan rou­tinely face this un­com­fort­able phe­nom­e­non. The key dif­fer­ence, how­ever, is while in ad­vanced democ­ra­cies th­ese do­na­tions by cor­po­rates are made legally and in a trans­par­ent mode, in In­dia this hap­pens in il­licit or hawala routes. While cor­po­rate sec­tor has made some vis­i­ble progress to­wards trans­parency by float­ing elec­toral trusts, still most busi­nesses pre­fer ‘safer’ il­licit routes. Sam­ple this: huge tax ben­e­fits un­der Sec­tion 80GGB of the In­come Tax Act has not pushed many cor­po­rates to make clean do­na­tion.

There­fore, the in­tro­duc­tion of an elec­toral bond with its anonymity pro­vi­sion as rightly al­leged by the pe­ti­tion­ers will lead to un­re­stricted cor­po­rate do­na­tion for quid pro quo. With the govern­ment hav­ing al­lowed (again through Fi­nance Bill 2016) po­lit­i­cal do­na­tion un­der the For­eign Con­tri­bu­tion (Reg­u­la­tion) Act, 2010, rais­ing the prospects of out­side in­flu­ence, elec­toral bond in its present form fur­ther ac­cel­er­ates the role of pri­vate money in demo­cratic process.

It is here that the Supreme Court has a rare op­por­tu­nity to re-en­er­gise the elec­toral re­forms that it had ini­ti­ated in the ear­lier decade. It needs a men­tion that nearly all ma­jor elec­toral re­forms have come through ju­di­cial ac­tivism. Bold elec­toral re­forms es­pe­cially dis­clo­sure of crim­i­nal an­tecedents, sub­mis­sion of party ac­counts, dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion of con­victed MLAs/MPs, the in­tro­duc­tion of NOTA (none of the above) among oth­ers came through ju­di­cial in­ter­ven­tions.

In all th­ese years, po­lit­i­cal par­ties have put up strong re­sis­tance to elec­toral re­forms, notwith­stand­ing ap­point­ing com­mit­tees and com­mis­sions from time to time. There is a long his­tory of de­lay, sub­terfuge, di­lu­tion by suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments at the Cen­tre, and there is amaz­ing una­nim­ity among po­lit­i­cal par­ties — left, right and cen­tre — to stall any pos­si­ble pro­gres­sive re­forms to bring greater trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity in po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions and their ex­pen­di­tures. It is no sur­prise that it took more than a decade-long strug­gle by elec­tion watch­dogs, ac­tivists, lawyers and pub­lic-spir­ited in­di­vid­u­als to get ‘The Elec­tion and Other Re­lated Bill’ (deal­ing with key is­sues of state fund­ing of elec­tions, tax re­bate to po­lit­i­cal donors, etc) passed in 2003. Re­cently, show­ing a rare unity, po­lit­i­cal par­ties op­posed the Cen­tral In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sion’s di­rec­tive to bring po­lit­i­cal par­ties in­clud­ing their do­na­tions un­der the am­bit of the Right to In­for­ma­tion Act. Even elec­toral trusts and their sources of con­tri­bu­tion suf­fer from opac­ity, and no govern­ment of the day has shown the po­lit­i­cal will to end the anonymity.

To cut long story short, po­lit­i­cal par­ties even the rul­ing Bharatiya Janata Party is likely to avoid the bold road to elec­toral re­forms. The ju­di­ciary must seize the op­por­tu­nity and set the ball rolling on un­fin­ished elec­toral re­forms.

There is a long his­tory of de­lay, sub­terfuge, di­lu­tion of elec­toral re­forms by suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments with an in­tent to scut­tle trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity

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