By Deepa Kumar:Â
At GrassRoute India, we are only a few days away from hosting a Google+ Hangout on one of the most vital issues that India faces today — addressing the challenges of transparency in election funding: How do we make funds of Candidates & Parties more accountable? How do we reduce the opaqueness of the election funding process?
In 2011, a huge part of India’s population — the urban middle class — was galvanised into action on the basis of a sentiment that was common to all of them. Was (Is) the Lokpal Bill a means to an end or an end in itself? Is it a magic wand with the ability to rid a country — that ranks as low as 94 (out of 177 countries) on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Index — entirely off corruption? No one can be sure yet. But while we are still trying to ascertain an answer to that question, one thing is clear: the middle class Indian is tired of corruption. It is true that the same middle class still indulges in forms of corruption cause it’s just the way the ‘system’ has become, but tolerating corruption within political structures — in political parties, is a big no now-a-days. Definitely an important take away from the 2011 chapter of Indian democracy.
As a result of this chapter, India saw the birth of the Aam Aadmi Party — a political party that prides itself as being the only one that truly epitomises the term ‘republic’ — constituted of the people and with the goal of remaining for the people. With no maibaap backing them, what the Aam Aadmi Party pulled off was exceptional — weaning out the Indian National Congress and establishing themselves as Government in India’s most pivotal state — Delhi. All their other initiatives aside, their main punch line of ushering in corruption-free governance is what took them up to the pedestal. How did they do this? By telling people two simple things — 1) Their signature promise of passing the Jan Lok Pal Bill in Delhi Assembly, and 2) Answering (in totality) a question that almost every citizen asks, ‘From where do political parties get their money?’
In a country where corruption — bribery, kickback funding etc. — are such searing issues, the Aam Aadmi Party took the lead and invited citizens to look into their funds — a step that no other political party has taken so far for a variety of reasons; as a result of which, it’s become even more difficult for citizens to trust political parties. To make matters worse, these parties even refused to have themselves fall under the ambit of the Right to Information Act.
When political parties keep themselves hidden in such dark alleys, how can they expect the trust of citizens?
So, what does GrassRoute India’s Google+ Hangout entail? Herein, we are collaborating with the office of Lok Sabha Member of Parliament from Kendrapara, Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda (BJD). When we spoke to Jay Panda, he said that according to him, the lack of transparency in election funding and the lack of reforms in the electoral processes, are the biggest challenges India faces today; that if this puzzle starts getting solved, answers to many other challenges may be found.
In July 2013, Jay Panda wrote to the Law Commission, offering his suggestions for electoral reforms, as a response to a consultation paper circulated by the Commission. On the issue of transparency in election funding, Jay Panda wrote stating that the idea of State funding of elections came with certain merit. This would not only level the playing field for candidates but also reduce the role of private funding in elections (a probable attributor to the extent of corruption).
On the issue of disclosure of donors, Panda wrote suggesting the need to incentivise parties to compulsorily disclose all funds & subject themselves to audit, to facilitate transparency. Perhaps the most important take away from his letter being this, ‘I cannot emphasise enough that the focus of reform should not be on capping the quantum of funds, but on ensuring the legitimacy of funds.’
Consider this against the backdrop of a fact — that the maximum poll expenditure limit of a Lok Sabha candidate contesting in 20 of India’s biggest states is Rs. 40 lakh, and against the backdrop of reality — that on an average a Lok Sabha candidate contesting in any of the states spends anywhere between Rs. 3 crore to Rs. 5 crore. This makes our elections a very dubious affair. Is the upper cap of Rs. 40 lakh for a candidate’s expenditure a realistic figure? Perhaps not. But would such opaque excesses occur if all fund sources were to be declared and subject to audit? Again, perhaps not.
Taking the issue further is a certain dichotomy — albeit there is an upper cap on the contribution that a corporate can make to a candidate / party (maximum 5% of the corporate’s average net profit over the previous three years), there is no limit on individual contributions.
Also, in August 2013, the Election Commission had circulated a 10-point plan to all recognised political parties, suggesting measures to curb the use of black money in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Among its suggestions were bank transfers to candidates for poll expenditures and annual audit of party accounts. While some of the parties such as the Jharkand Mukti Morcha, the Sikkim Democratic Front, the Nationalist Congress Party agreed to the suggestions, India’s two biggest national parties didn’t. The Indian National Congress opposed the idea, whereas the Bhartiya Janata Party failed to even present a response.
These are among the challenges that the Google+ Hangout with Jay Panda aims to address while identifying an executable way forward. Joining him on the panel are Abhinandan Sekhri (Founder, News laundry and AAP supporter), Karuna Nundy (Advocate, Supreme Court of India), a group of citizens and Anshul Tewari (Founder, Youth Ki Awaaz) as the moderator.
As a stakeholder of India’s democracy, there is no reason why a citizen shouldn’t know where a candidate/political party gets its funds from, especially when the same funds are being used to win the citizen’s vote and represent him or her.
GrassRoute India invites you to participate in the Google+ Hangout — We ask you to take the survey here and send in your questions or inputs for the panel using #AskJay and/or #TransparentElections.
You can view the Google+ Hangout Live on Tuesday, 11th February, 8pm onwards on youtube.com/baijayantjaypanda.
About the author: Deepa Kumar is the Founder-Director of GrassRoute India.