Plutarch pointed out the root cause for the fall of the Roman Republic- ‘’the abuse of buying and selling votes crept in and money began to play an important part in determining the elections…and finally, when even the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the republic was subjected to the rule of the emperors. For, it has rightly been said that the man who first offers banquets and bribes to the people is the first to destroy their liberties.’’
The Roman Republic prevailed from BCE 509 to BCE 27. The republic was ruled by the Senate and Assembly elected by the citizenry. When money crept into politics, corruption spread out; the republic crumbled; and the dictators grabbed the state power. The same tragedy is haunting the Indian Republic in our times. The elections are being determined by deep pockets; votes are being reduced into purchasable commodities. This phenomenon would truncate democracy into a scarecrow, would give rise to the ascendance of dictators and autocrats and would cripple the citizen’s liberties.
Elections in India have turned into the rich man’s carnivals. Law has fixed ceiling for election expenditure per candidate and bogus account or expenditure beyond the ceiling can lead to disqualification of the candidate up to three years under Section 10A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. But the legal ceilings are mere paper tigers in practice.
As per the Centre for Media Studies estimate the total expenditure incurred by Indian political class on campaigning for 2014 Lok Sabha elections was approximately $5 billion. Compared to the expenditure for the previous General Elections, this is a 150% hike. According to the Press Trust of India, the on-going general elections will be the most expensive in the history of India and probably one of the most expensive election ever held in the history of democracy in the World.
It is clear that only feathered of-birds and deep pockets can win Indian elections. The commoner or the marginalised sections have practically been debarred form winning elected posts. The politicians increasingly depend on corporate giants for funds and the corporates snatch away governmental favours in return. Resultantly the political system turns into an Augean stable of corruption. According to a report by the Association for Democratic Reforms, at least 83 per cent of 521 MPs of 16th Lok Sabha are ‘crorepatis’. The average asset of an MP is Rs. 14.72 crore.
The deep pockets in India started political financing during 1952-1967 period, the era of the Congress dominance and Licence Raj. In 1969, Indira Gandhi abolished corporate funding for political parties. ‘’Without providing an alternative financing mechanism (such as state funding), Gandhi’s decision — far from abolishing the link between business and politics — effectively pushed campaign finance underground, an affliction that exists to the present day.’’-E.Sridharan and Milan Vaishnav, experts in political finance in India, observed on Indira Gandhi’s move. The vacuum resulted out of the ban was filled by black money and a system of opaque donations for quid pro quo governmental favours.
In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi lifted the ban on corporate funding but corporate contributions remained opaque. Another major change affecting corporate donations was brought in 2013 by amending the Companies Act. This legislation allowed corporates to donate up to 7.5 per cent of the net average profits earned in the preceding three years.
Further the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010 was amended to allow foreign companies registered in India to make political donations. The Finance Act 2017 removed the cap of 7.5 per cent of the net average profits for corporate political donation and repealed the provision for disclosure of political funding in the annual balance sheet of companies. These legislatives measures entrenched the corporate grip over political finance.
As per the data compiled by the Association of Democratic Reforms, total political donations through various corporate sources were Rs 422 crore in 2017-18. The ruling BJP has grabbed as much as 92% of the total corporate donations in 2017-18. The asymmetry of corporate funding is clearly palpable. This trend would lead country into one-party dominance and plutocracy. Both are radically destructive of democratic polity.
Parliament amended the Representation of People Act in 1975. This amendment made the limit on election expenditures virtually ineffective, as it was limited to a candidate’s direct expenditures only, while the party and the candidate’s supporters could spend without any limits. In 1996 Common Cause Case, the Supreme Court directed political parties to file their income tax and wealth tax returns periodically. But political parties seldom file returns regularly nor are the returns independently audited. The Indrajit Gupta Committee, 1998, floated the idea of state funding of elections. But the idea of state funding of elections still remains as a pie in the sky.
In 2018, the central government introduced the electoral bond scheme with a proclaimed aim of cleansing political finance. But astonishingly under the scheme, the identity of donors would be known only to the bank. The Association for Democratic Reforms moved the Supreme Court for squashing the scheme, alleging that anonymous political donations are lethal to transparency. The Attorney General defended the scheme with a high-handed statement in the Court that the electorate are not entitled to know about the financial sources of political parties. The BJP benefitted most out of the electoral bond scheme in 2017-18 and grabbed 94.5% of the bonds.
“No man can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and Mammon,” says the Bible. Likewise no nation can serve both democracy and Mammon concomitantly. If Indian citizenry opt for Mammon over democracy, let them heed Plutarch’s warning that the man who first offers banquets and bribes to the people would be the first to destroy their liberties.