Indian Elections: A Playground For The Rich And Powerful

The 2024 Lok Sabha elections are expected to be the world’s most expensive. Spending by political parties and candidates to woo voters will likely cost more than Rs 1.2 trillion or 14.4 billion USD
By Ranjit Bhushan
  • The Election Commission launched a quaintly named ‘Myth vs Reality Register’ to combat the spread of misinformation and uphold integrity
  • Political scientists have traditionally stated that elections must not become mere rituals calculated to generate an illusion
  • As far as the issue of electoral reforms in India is concerned, the overall focus has been on the system of representation, both in Parliament and the legislative
  • Some important recommendations made by politics and electoral reform committees to ECI reflect on the growing criminalization and dominance of money

INDIA is the largest and the most populous democracy in the world. At 969 million voters, the size of India’s electorate is more than the population of all the countries of Europe put together.
Despite being burdened by illiteracy and poverty, like many emerging economies, India has stood out like a lodestar for developing countries. For decades, it has held elections that have changed governments. The country has repeatedly reposed faith in elections as the most potent means of non-violent and peaceful change of government.

Yet, as the recent electoral bond exposure has revealed, the need for electoral reform is needed more in 2024 than it was in the last 17 general elections held before, for the first time in 1951-52.

RECOGNIZING ELECTORAL REALITIES

So, does the world’s biggest and most comprehensive elections need a certificate about its integrity? The answer is in the affirmative. On April 1, the Election Commission of India (ECI) launched a quaintly named ‘Myth vs Reality Register’, as part of the ongoing General Elections 2024.
Its ostensible aim is to combat the spread of misinformation and uphold the integrity of the electoral process. Launched by Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar, an official statement said that “ the factual Matrix of the Register will be continuously updated regularly to include the latest busted fakes and fresh FAQs’’, adding that “the introduction of the ‘Myth vs Reality Register’ marks a significant milestone in the ECI’s ongoing efforts to safeguard the electoral process from misinformation.”
This register is accessible to the public through the ECI’s official website (https://mythvsreality.eci.gov.in/). “With the proliferation of misinformation and false narratives becoming a growing concern in many democracies globally, this innovative and proactive initiative by ECI is an effort to ensure that voters have access to accurate and verified information throughout the electoral process,” the statement added.

The maturity of any democracy depends upon its ability to introspect. A 2020 reference note entitled Electoral Reforms in India, brought out by the Lok Sabha Secretariat admitted that despite the many gains made by Indian democracy, “certain aberrations have come to the fore in the very working of the electoral system over the years. The need to address such disturbing factors have generated a debate on electoral reforms in the country.’’

INFLUENCE OF MONEY

Political scientists have traditionally stated that elections must not become mere rituals calculated to generate an illusion of difference; the fact is that democracy cannot survive without free and fair elections. The Indian political system measures up well when compared to its immediate neighbourhood, but that does not mean there are no limitations imposed on the system.

Notes Md. Naiyar Equbal, from the Department of Political Science, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU): “There are scholars and policy holders who believe that the elections at present are not being held in ideal conditions. The reasons put forth are many, but a very significant one is the enormous amount of money required to be spent on elections and by and large use of muscle power that is being used or needed for winning the elections both at the national and state levels.”

May 1, 2021 – Katwa WB India : Taken this picture of men and women queues up to cast their vote during this pandemic with their masks but without maintaining any social distancing. The Indian paramilitary guards are manning the gate and giving instructions.

A 2020 reference note entitled ‘Electoral Reforms in India’, brought out by the Lok Sabha Secretariat admitted that despite the many gains made by Indian democracy, “certain aberrations have come to the fore in the very working of the electoral system over the years

For example, the 2024 general elections is expected to be the world’s most expensive. Spending by political parties and candidates to woo voters will likely cost more than Rs 1.2 trillion or $14.4b, according to calculations made by N Bhaskar Rao, Founder Chairman of the Centre for Media Studies (CMS).
That would be twice of what was spent in India’s 2019 Lok Sabha elections – Rs 600 billion or $7.2bn. By way of comparison, the total spending on the US presidential and congressional races in 2020 was also pegged at $14.4bn!

The increased role of money has, however, not proved to be a deterrent for those wanting to contest. Data with the ECI shows the vast increase in the number of candidates contesting in each successive election. While in 1952, the first general election, 1,864 candidates fought for 489 Lok Sabha seats, by the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the numbers of contestants had gone up to 8,026, contesting 543 Lok Sabha seats.

IMPACT OF MULTI PARTY SYSTEM

The other aspect of electoral reforms include an increase in the number of regional parties – including some who have no hold beyond two or three districts – because of the multiparty system. Naturally then, there has been a substantial increase in the number of independent candidates who contest elections and win.

Some experts like political analyst Sushil Sharma argue that this has impinged upon the stability of the governments in power by prompting defections and promoting coalition politics over the past decades in India. For instance, several United Front governments in the 1990s are an outcome of this format.
As far as the issue of electoral reforms in India is concerned, the overall focus has been on the system of representation, both in Parliament and the legislative assemblies, commonly known as the “First-Past-the-Post” system. Of all the candidates contesting, it is the one who wins the largest number of votes gets elected.

So, what exactly has prompted this mood for electoral reforms in India? Political scientists who have delved deeply into the workings of Indian democracy argue that while the first three general elections, conducted from 1952 to 1962, were by and large free and fair, a discernible decline in standards is evident by the Fourth general election that were conducted in 1967.

TRIGGERS FOR ELECTORAL REFORM

There is growing unanimity – indeed certainty – that the election process in India is the precursor of political corruption. The distortion in its working appeared for the first time in 1971 and then later those held in 1980s and thereafter. It is believed that some of the candidates and political parties participate in the process of elections to win them at all costs, irrespective of their background – and many of them come from dubious milieus.

A 2023 analysis conducted by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an apolitical and non-partisan non-profit organisation in India working on electoral and political reforms, has claimed that an approximate 44 per cent of MLAs in state assemblies across India have declared criminal cases against themselves.

The analysis, conducted by ADR and the National Election Watch (NEW), examined the self-sworn affidavits of current MLAs in state assemblies and Union territories nationwide. The data was extracted from the affidavits filed by the MLAs prior to contesting their most recent elections.
The analysis encompassed a total of 4,001 MLAs out of the 4,033 individuals serving across 28 state assemblies and two Union territories.

Of the MLAs analysed, the ADR said 1,136 or about 28 percent have declared serious criminal cases against themselves, including charges related to murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, and crimes against women, among others.

The stepwise breakup is interesting. In Kerala, 95 out of 135 MLAs, accounting for 70 per cent, have declared criminal cases against themselves. In Bihar, 161 out of 242 MLAs (67 percent), in Delhi, 44 out of 70 MLAs (63 percent), in Maharashtra, 175 out of 284 MLAs (62 percent), in Telangana, 72 out of 118 MLAs (61 percent), and in Tamil Nadu, 134 out of 224 MLAs (60 percent) have self-declared criminal cases in their affidavits.

Political scientists who have delved deeply into the workings of Indian democracy argue that while the first three general elections, conducted from 1952 to 1962, were by and large free and fair, a discernible decline in standards is evident by the fourth general election conducted in 1967

Additionally, the ADR reported that 37 out of 70 MLAs (53 percent) in Delhi, 122 out of 242 MLAs (50 percent) in Bihar, 114 out of 284 MLAs (40 percent) in Maharashtra, 31 out of 79 MLAs (39 percent) in Jharkhand, 46 out of 118 MLAs (39 percent) in Telangana, and 155 out of 403 MLAs (38 per cent) in Uttar Pradesh have declared serious criminal cases against themselves. The analysis also unveiled disturbing statistics related to crimes against women.

A total of 114 MLAs have declared cases pertaining to crimes against women, with 14 of them specifically declaring cases related to rape (IPC Section-376), as highlighted in the report.
Apart from criminal records, the analysis also examined the assets of the MLAs. The average assets per MLA from state assemblies were found to be Rs.13.63 crore. However, the average assets of MLAs with declared criminal cases stood higher at Rs.16.36 crore, compared to Rs.11.45 crore for those with no criminal cases.

UNIFIED CALL FOR ELECTORAL REFORMS

While the preamble of Indian Constitution aims to provide ‘political justice’ to the people of India without any biases, that remains a theoretical proposition. However, when serious criminal elements are joining the legislatures, then securing any form of justice, becomes a hollow promise.
All recent committees on politics and electoral reform are unanimous in their findings. The topic of electoral reforms has been taken up by numerous government committees in the recent past, including but not limited to:

  1. Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms (1990)
  2. Vohra Committee Report (1993)
  3. Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections (1998)
  4. Law Commission Report on Reform of the Electoral Laws (1999)
  5. National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2001)
  6. Election Commission of India Proposed Electoral Reforms (2004)
  7. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2008)

Some important recommendations made by these committees to the Election Commission reflect on the growing criminalization and the overwhelming dominance of money power in the Indian electoral system.

  • The reports suggest that the money power in elections must be controlled and eliminated. There must be financial transparency in political parties.
  • The practice of misuse of caste and religion for electoral gains must be avoided. The use of religion, caste, community, tribe, and any other form of group identity for electoral gain or for gathering political support should be banned.
  • The Election Commission of India should progressively increase the threshold criterion for eligibility for recognition as a political party, thus regulating the political parties in democracy is a much needed step. For this purpose, ECI must start the process of registration and deregistration of political parties.
  • The country is in need of political reforms. One such step is to make political parties answerable and democratic in nature by having the internal democracy in political parties.
  • The most significant is having a strong anti-defection law in India. It is critical to control buying and selling of elected representatives by political parties for their selfish needs.
  • The ECI should be strengthened and given equal constitutional protection to all members of the Commission in matters of removability. Above all, it is imperative to create a permanent and independent Secretariat for the Election Commission.
NEED FOR FINANCIAL TRANSPARENCY

Nowhere was the power of moneybags and slush money so apparent when the electoral bonds scheme came to light this year. The BJP has remained the major beneficiary of the electoral bonds, as per the data available on the official website of the Election Commission.
The BJP received the maximum funds via electoral bonds at Rs 6,986.5 crore between April 12, 2019, and February 15, 2024, followed by West Bengal’s ruling party Trinamool Congress (Rs 1,397 crore), Congress (Rs1,334 crore), and Bharat Rashtra Samithi (Rs 1,322 crore).

Among the regional parties, more than 89.81 per cent of the Biju Janata Dal’s (BJD) total donations came from electoral bonds worth Rs.622 crore, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) declared the second highest donations from bonds of Rs.431.50 crore, followed by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS, now BRS) which declared Rs.383.65 crore and the YSR Congress (YSRCP) which declared Rs.330.44 crore.
The direct corporate donations declared by the seven national parties are more than five times the corporate donations declared by 31 regional parties during the six-year period. In the six-year period, direct corporate donations declared by the regional parties increased by around 152 per cent!
The Supreme Court, in a ruling in February this year, struck down the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Centre’s Electoral Bond Scheme, which allowed for anonymous funding to political parties, and ordered the State Bank of India to stop issuing electoral bonds immediately.

Indian politician meet with business man vector illustration.

After the disclosures, the opposition parties have dubbed the electoral bonds as legalised corruption, while the BJP has said scrapping the bonds could lead to the return of black money in politics

According to civil society activists, 41 companies facing probe by the CBI, ED, and the income tax department gave ₹2,471 crore to the BJP through electoral bonds, and ₹1,698 crore of it was donated after raids by these agencies. Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan highlighted a typical case. “Future Gaming gave Rs 60 crore to the BJP within three months of I-T and ED raids on November 12, 2023, and December 1, 2021, respectively. Aurobindo Pharma gave Rs 5 crore to the BJP within three months of the ED raid on November 10, 2022.”

After the disclosures, the opposition parties have dubbed the electoral bonds as legalised corruption, while the BJP has said scrapping the bonds could lead to the return of black money in politics.
Bhushan alleged that there was information that more than half of money received by redeeming electoral bonds was “taken as bribe, by giving contracts and by showing fear of ED and CBI”. He demanded an independent Special Investigation Team (SIT) be set up to probe the “tripartite conspiracy”.

“Inquiry should be done about whoever was involved, like companies who gave electoral bonds and received contracts and also got relief from the ED, IT and CBI… officials who were involved in this conspiracy…,” he said.

In an independent report released in July 2023, ADR said that more than half of all donations received by political parties between 2016-17 and 2021-22 were through electoral bonds. The BJP received more funds than all other national parties put together, the report added. According to the ADR, donations worth around Rs 16,437 crore were received by the seven national parties and 24 regional parties in India between 2016-17 and 2021-22. Of this, Rs.9,188.35 crore—around 56 per cent—were received through electoral bonds.

Noted journalist N Ram in his book Why Scams Are Here To Stay offers some solutions in the short term. “(a) strict implementation of existing laws to fight corruption rather than constantly creating new ones when a problem arises, and then not implementing it forcefully, (b) appeals to the judiciary to strike down regressive political finance legislation, (c) popular protests against harmful decisions taken by the government, e.g. redefining coconut trees as grass to allow rampant tree felling to benefit some company, would help.’’

As the decibel level for electoral reforms gathers momentum, it would be interesting to see how long the establishment resists and the means it adopts to stonewall change.

Ranjit Bhushan

Ranjit Bhushan is a Delhi-based journalist and author.  In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.

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