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Why Indian elections are flush with cash

Why Indian elections are flush with cash

Why Indian elections are flush with cash
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By Krishna Ananth  Apr 30, 2019 6:51:47 AM IST (Updated)

Parties dishing out money to candidates and candidates raising funds for campaign are as old as parliamentary democracy in India.

Among the lasting images that election campaigns have left in recent years is that of wads of currency notes being found with candidates or their agents. As is the case with such statistics like incidence of tuberculosis or AIDS, where the numbers indicate merely those cases that are reported, instances of cash seized by officials enforcing free and fair elections are only a small part of the actual incidence of this.

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It may not be that use of money is only a recent development. Parties dishing out money to candidates and candidates themselves raising funds to be spent on the campaign are as old as parliamentary democracy is in India.
Recall, for instance, the story of Haridas Mundhra, an average businessman in the 1950s, getting help from the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) to boost the value of his falling stocks; the then Union finance minister TT Krishnamachari was found to have put in a word for Mundhra then. The nexus between Mundhra financing the Congress party before elections and the favour returned to him by the party in power subsequently was hinted by the Justice MC Chagla Commission, appointed in response to Feroze Gandhi’s charge in parliament, ended in Krishnamachari’s resignation from his ministerial position.
Let us move fast-forward to the 1990s and the notorious Jain Hawala scandal. A chance enquiry by the Delhi Police investigating money trail involving a student suspected to have connections with some militants in Kashmir led them to a diary maintained by a Hawala dealer; this was one of those shady black markets buying and selling foreign exchange and the trail led to entries suggesting money paid to leaders of political parties across the spectrum, barring the Left parties.
The list contained names of politicians who were considered pretty rich and lived in palaces, for they were descendents of the former kings and queens who ruled swathes of land pre-British, held on to the titles throughout the colonial era playing ball with the colonial regime and also those who had spent their life in politics; the list contained names of the late Madhavrao Scindia as well as LK Advani. The amounts were too small going by standards of the present! All those whose names figured had received amounts that ran into a few lakhs and some had even agreed to have received as little as Rs. Five Lakhs; that was Sharad Yadav for instance.
Even though the scandal ended with nothing found by way of the nexus between bribe giver and bribe taker and hence not actionable under the Prevention of Corruption Act, it forced several political leaders to take an interval from electoral politics in the general elections of 1996. Advani thus ended up leaving the space to Atal Behari Vajpayee as the BJP’s natural choice for the prime minister’s position, even if he lasted only for 13 days in that seat then.
The point is money, ill-gotten in any sense, had been there in the democratic process for long and yet when political leaders and their workers were caught, even with scanty evidence, they ended up paying a price, however small it was. In the couple of decades since then, there is a sea change. Not only has the amount of the moneys involved increased many-fold, there is a belief among political parties that it is possible to command mandates in an election by distributing cash.
Take for instance the seizure of hard cash, stuffed into envelopes with details of EPIC numbers and names of voters in the Vellore Lok Sabha constituency in Tamil Nadu. It is not the first time. Distributing cash for votes was heard of, pretty much in the open in an assembly by-election recently near Chennai, and even a decade ago, cash was distributed in the homes of the people in Madurai. We have seen cash being seized from vehicles that candidates travelled by and some of them being ministers.
A question that arises here is where does all these money come from and Sherlock Homes would simply say: Elementary Watson. These are money that were earned by politicians while in power and some of it are being spent by them in times of elections as investment to make more by winning power again. And these are people who refuse to spend even a fraction of this to furnish and refurbish the ministerial bungalows they occupy without rent.
It has been reported that at least Rs1 billion was spent in the 59 months since May 2014 renovating ministerial bungalows in New Delhi and all these have been public money that could have been spent building shelters to the homeless if there was a will.  And those who wielded power in the cause of the people could have spent this money from out of that they kept to distribute in exchange for votes!
Such use of money for votes, unfortunately, seem to be seen by those who have stashed wads of currency notes to be disbursed, as working in their favour.
The tragedy is, to borrow a short sentence from Shantaram, an extremely sensitive fiction by Gregory David Roberts: “The worst thing about corruption as a system of governance is that it works so well.” Roberts, a convict who escaped prison from Australia and lived in Bombay through the 1980s, makes this point in the narrative about how the rules get floated in the city and everything is made possible with money paid up to law enforcing officers. Shantaram was first published in 2003 and has run into several editions and happens to be an international bestseller.
Well. This seems to hold good to explain the crisis that has engulfed the election process and the free flow of money in elections in our midst. Herein lies a challenge to our idea of democracy as such.
Krishna Ananth is an associate professor at Department of History, Sikkim University
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