Campaign finance

April 07, 2018

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THE play of money in the political process is an unfortunate necessity that no democracy has been able to discard. It becomes all the more necessary during election campaigning — and all the more menacing to the integrity of the electoral process. Buying voters is an ancient disease; so is corruption in public life. Financial power is an offshoot of this vice. Money is collected by politicians, in and out of office, ostensibly to finance their parties. A silent bargain is struck, with powerful tycoons in commerce and industry promising rewards once the recipient is in office. Such promises are hard to break, lest it invite refusals to pay for the next election cycle.

This menace has grown, and bids fair to grow further still. Efforts to devise solutions have failed — mostly for want of political will. In India, the election law was last comprehensively revised half a century ago. Committees have recommended solutions, but neither incumbent nor opposition parties show any interest in reform. Civil society and its many think tanks have not exerted enough to provide effective and realistic measures.

It must be acknowledged that no solution can be perfect given the complexities of the problem and the magnitude of the stake — power. With it comes, in some cases, acquisition of all manner of gains. That, however, is no reason to throw one’s hands up in despair. Even imperfect reforms can curb the influence of money in elections. Public opinion will begin to appreciate that, and demand more effective reforms.

This menace has grown, and bids fair to grow further still.

The experience of other countries can be instructive; not as models for imitation but for cautious adaption, bearing in mind the political, economic and social realities of one’s country — not least the state of its political culture.

Two models deserve rejection; the American one, outright. Zephyr Rain Teachout’s excellent work, Corruption in America, exposes the rot in the entire system and the refusal of its highly politicised Supreme Court to help. In 2010, it struck down in Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission all limits on corporate campaign finance. It redefined corruption to mean only “quid pro quo corruption”, ie cases when there are “direct examples of votes being exchanged for ... expenditures”, which is almost impossible to prove.

The German model deserves praise, but given India’s party structure it would be unsafe to adopt it. The Parteiengesetz (Law on Political Parties) requires them to submit their audited accounts to the speaker of the lower house of parliament who, in turn, presents them to the house after scrutiny. It is he, not the government, who sanctions the money for parties. They submit copies of their constitution and programmes to the federal returning officer. But this is conditional on internal democracy within a party. State money does not line the pockets of party bosses. Britain opted not to adopt it, despite the recommendation of a committee on financial aid to political parties in 1976. It set up an election commission to oversee the working of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, 2000, which imposes curbs on donations to parties, on party spending, and requires them to publish annual accounts of income and expenditure in a specified format.

In India, three committees recommended state help in kind. In 1975, a committee on electoral reform recommended that the political parties maintain audited accounts, and that the state shall freely provide printed cards giving the details of the voters; free postage to the candidate for one communication to each voter; provision of facilities to hold meetings; 12 copies of the electoral roll; and free and equal time on TV for election broadcasts.

In 1990, another committee on electoral reforms added “provision of prescribed quantity of fuel or petrol to vehicles used by candidates”, and payment of hire charges for a prescribed number of microphones. In 1999, the Law Commission of India recommended curbs on extravagance by imposing reasonable limits on the number of vehicles, election rallies, and display of posters, hoardings, etc.

But why not a law on fund collection itself, the source of abuse? The law should debar persons from appealing to the public for funds unless certain minimal necessary formalities are complied with. No one is permitted to launch a journal, for instance, unless he has filed a declaration prescribed by the law. Those seeking public money should be asked to conform to similar formalities as do those who reach out to people’s minds. The fund promoter’s declaration should spell out clearly and precisely the object for which the fund is being collected. By the declaration itself, the fund promoters should be deemed to constitute themselves as trustees of the fund. The law of trust will apply, with all its legal consequences for breach of trust, criminal and civil — including disqualification for membership of the legislature.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2018