March 4, 2019 / 5:47 AM / a month ago

Breakingviews - India Insight: Money power is choking democracy

MUMBAI (Reuters Breakingviews) - The rare Asiatic lion is no match for India’s democracy. In the 2009 general election, a polling station was set up for a single voter in a wildlife sanctuary where big cats roam free. Officials go to ever-greater extremes to ensure voters in the world’s largest democracy can cast their ballots, erecting booths in snow-capped mountains and in Maoist rebel-affected areas. Unfortunately politicians, also known as netas, show no similar enthusiasm for stamping out corruption in the electoral system. In a nation thirsty for good governance, that’s ripe for change.

A boy's face is seen through the Indian national flag during Independence day celebrations in Mumbai, India, August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas - RC1FE1173EF0

India is known the world over for bureaucracy, yet its elections are a marvel of staggering complexity and surprising efficiency. The last national ballot, held over six weeks five years ago, swept Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power. The next, which must be held by May, will encompass around 875 million voters, 1 million voting stations, and over 10 million polling and police personnel. Turnout is rising too, with the 2014 count at more than 66 percent, higher than in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. 

Yet the integrity of the country’s noisy democracy is buckling under the weight of money. The problem has been ignored, even by India’s most anti-graft-minded leader in decades. Modi has started to shift the consensus on how the nation thinks about corruption and tamed high-level crony capitalism, but when it comes to elections, the distortions look increasingly grotesque.

MONEY POWER

The 2019 poll will cost about $8.5 billion, almost double the outlays in the last general election, according to the Centre for Media Studies, a Delhi-based think tank. The tally could be even higher after the limit on corporate donations was abolished last year. Those amounts compare to $6.5 billion spent on the U.S. Senate, House and presidential races that elected Donald Trump in the United States three years ago, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

CMS researchers have also found, from samples in some states, that up to 37 percent of Indian voters have received money for votes. Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the problem is so bad that elections are now synonymous with gift-giving, from cash to items as lavish as flat-screen televisions.

Notably authoritative criticism comes from former Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla, who oversaw the 2009 poll. In his new book “Every Vote Counts” he notes that he came to see “the growth of ‘money power’ as a hydra-headed monster”.

The problems start with under-reporting against official campaign-spending caps, currently at 7 million rupees, or just under $100,000, per candidate. Acknowledging the widespread practice, the late former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, quipped: “Every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files.” 

Perhaps because money talks, criminal charges don’t seem to disqualify candidates in India. In fact, around 30 percent of ministers in the current administration face such allegations, many for serious things related to murder, communal disharmony and kidnapping, according to a 2014 study by National Election Watch and the Association for Democratic Reforms. According to Vaishnav at the Carnegie Endowment, politicians with cases against them are statistically more likely to win elections.

Another scourge is so-called paid news. An undercover exposé by Cobrapost last year alleged that top media groups were willing to accept payment in return for favourable coverage of the ruling party. Media moguls, including Vineet Jain, the managing director of Bennett Coleman, publisher of the top-selling Times of India, were shown on video appearing to negotiate terms. The Times denied wrongdoing and said in an editorial, that Cobrapost was, in fact, the victim of a deliberate “reverse sting”. Whatever the truth of that particular tale, Chawla recalls in his book how candidates would complain about being blacked out of the news after failing to pay up.

The sheer sums required to have a viable run in Indian politics limit the candidate pool and, inevitably, encourage those who win office to seek reward, either to repay debts and favours or to build a war-chest for the next campaign.

FAIRER ELECTIONS

Stricter campaign-spending caps, as in the United Kingdom, are one possible thrust of reform. India’s Election Commission has proposed a limit on the anonymous donations parties can receive as a proportion of their total funding set at 20 percent, or 200 million rupees ($2.8 million), whichever is lower. However, in isolation additional limits could prove ineffective given how little respect netas show for existing ones. 

That’s why greater transparency is also important. India could, for example, eliminate cash donations, says Vaishnav. Making money traceable would make it easier to spot politicians using it in suspicious ways. He also suggests requiring independent audits of party accounts, and making payment for news coverage a disqualifying offence, on a par with vote-rigging. Public funding of polls, as in Germany, could also be part of the answer but that would only be meaningful with other reforms in transparency. 

There is a wealth of good ideas but politicians, who need to approve any changes to the law, consistently ignore the commission’s reform proposals when it comes to campaign finance. The netas appear to have closed ranks. The result is that huge amounts of money slosh around in India’s electoral system, just as in the United States, but with few of even the most rudimentary checks and balances that exist even in America’s imperfect system.

Corporate backers of candidates want to remain anonymous so that they won’t be punished if their chosen party loses. Yet even leading industrialists, among them Ratan Tata, are voicing concern about the increasing scope for abuse. Modi has taken on some other forms of corruption, but India needs a leader willing and able to make a political case for rooting graft out of its sprawling democracy.

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