PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh urged us all recently to shed “negativity”. I kept looking long and hard for “positivity” between the rolling hills of scams, the deepening crisis in the economy and the emotional brotherhood between cricket and bookies, but alas, “positivity” proved to be as elusive as the pimpernel. And then suddenly there it was, in the middle of Kolkata.
Let us all stand up and praise Mamata Banerjee.
This is not for winning a by-election in Howrah, a partially urban district that begins just across the Hooghly river from Kolkata, although the importance of this to her fortunes should not be underestimated. This victory has given her government oxygen till the next test, the panchayat elections, and beyond. Her detractors, mostly concentrated in urban Bengal, were baying for her defeat. Her foes on the Left were energised; the Congress was back in nowhere land, but ranged against her. Mamata Banerjee managed to do unto the Left what the Left did unto its opponents for more than three decades. She shrugged off the urban middle class and picked up the underprivileged vote.
But that is reason for only her party’s applause. Our congratulations go to Mamata Banerjee for being the one major politician to accept the suggestion that political funding should be covered by the Right to Information Act (RTI). She welcomed the move to bring political parties under RTI when even the Left opposed the possible arrival of daylight in safe boxes where parties keep their cash.
If a government can be answerable to RTI, why can’t political parties who run government be subject to the same scrutiny? Their defensive arguments are dust in our eyes. Political parties do not belong to private shareholders; they are created for a public purpose, and they wield enormous influence over our lives through the public monies they control, and the policies they put in place. The very least that we should know is the route map of their cash flow.
Note that at very best exposure will only ascertain how much political parties have received officially. The greater proportion of their money comes not in cheques but in cash. Something, however, is always better than nothing. Cynics might suggest that Mamata Banerjee does not care because she gets very little in either form, and her only source is chit fund businessmen of the minor sort. Even if this is true, she is willing to face questions through RTI. Why can’t others? Why should we condemn the good merely because it is not the ideal?
As the situation stands in political space, minnows are rushing to the defence of sharks, terrified that their little feed might be threatened.
I suspect that many parties are more worried about details of the outflow of funds than they are about inflow. Outflow would strip aside the hypocrisy that shields their lifestyle, their travel style and their political style. Once an RTI process begins it will become virtually impossible, for instance, to disguise whose aircraft was used for which bit of travel, or indeed how many planes were hired when one might have been sufficient. The cadre who sweat it out in the base camps of party politics might not be too amused.
In the nexus between business and politics, there is nothing called a free lunch, although there is something called paying too much for a sparse meal, as many industrialists will ruefully confirm if you talk to them off the record. If an industrialist is not paying for a deal with a ruling party, he is buying insurance from the opposition. The cost of the second is less than the first, but you still pay.
We cannot blink away a fundamental problem. The financing of political parties is a core dilemma of democracy, and no one has a satisfactory solution. America attempted transparency in the minute form that modern technology can permit, and then created large loopholes for vested interests to mobilise massive advertising for their preferred candidate, in total violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. The greatest fun that British newspapers have had in a long while is from the endless exposure of how MPs fudge and fiddle their bills, or how eager they are to sell their individual influence to any corporate interest. For every MP or Lord caught, there are ten giggling away nervously, praising God that they escaped the media dragnet.
The Indian problem is not mere inaction, but the inability to do any serious thinking. This could be because there are no adequate answers. Government funding would be a disaster; parties would merely take from the public as well as private sector, creating the worst of both worlds. And if the Election Commission denied certificates to those deemed to have spent above the limit, half the Lok Sabha might be empty. Is anyone ready for such a prospect?
I tried my best to be positive, and look where we ended up.
The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.