Why More Money Does Not Mean More Democracy

Suggestions to allow candidates to spend more money in elections are based on a misreading of how parties function on the ground

DMK treasurer MK Stalin during the election campaign for 2016 assembly polls, in Tirupur on Sunday. Credit: PTI

DMK treasurer MK Stalin campaigning in Tirupur. Credit: PTI

In a recent article in The Hindu on money and elections – ‘Limited finance limits democracy’ – Pradeep Chhibber and Harsh Shah suggest that more money will mean more, and better, democracy.  Their conclusion, possibly, comes from long exposure to how democracy functions in the United States. They also cite, apparently with approval, how, in that country, there are “robust debates on pro-poor welfare policies and even the wealthiest speak for the poor”.

The authors are well-known academics in the US but their description of some situations in India are at times ambiguous and appear not to be fully informed and accurate. Leaving aside the wider reality that there are, in fact, no limits on party expenditure in Indian elections – a lacuna which the Association for Democratic Reforms has taken up in a PIL – Chhibber and Shah make some fundamental mistakes on the question of spending by individual candidates.

Government decides, not EC

The first is about fixing the limits of election expenditure by candidates. Chhibber and Shah quote Chapter VIII of the Representation of People Act and say, correctly, that the “the Act is silent on whether it is the job of the [Election] Commission or the state to level the playing field among candidates and parties.” There are, however, two inaccuracies here. One, Section 77(3) in Chapter VIII of the RP Act, which they also quote, says: “The total of the said expenditure shall not exceed such amount as may be prescribed.” The inaccuracy comes in using the words “control of election expenditure” and “levelling the playing field among candidates and parties.” It should not need explanation that the election “playing field” has many more elements than money.

The second is an inaccuracy as well as ambiguity, and is about who fixes the limits of election expenditure. On the one hand, the authors say that “The Indian state has chosen to interpret the Act as giving it the right to set unrealistically low limits to create a level playing field.” This implies that the limits are set by “the Indian state” which, by usual interpretation, is the government of the day. However, what they say at three other places, credits the Election Commission with this authority. These statements are “spending limits imposed by the Election Commission (EC)”; “the EC has increased the spending limit over time”; “The limits on election spending, along with the other restrictive campaign finance rules of the EC.” The correct position is that the limits for election expenditure are recommended by the EC but are actually decided upon and fixed by the government of the day, as these are laid down in Rule 90 of the Conduct of Election Rules which have been made and can be amended only by the Law Ministry over which the EC has no control whatsoever.

The final sentence of the piece is the clincher “By relaxing these rules, the Election Commission will be able to not only increase compliance, transparency and representation in Indian elections, but also help align India’s politics with its new economics.” The simple fact is that the EC does not have the power to relax these rules.

Cosy club of big spenders

Once again, the authors are correct when they say “To reduce the number of violations, the spending limits should, at the least, be closer to the actual amount candidates need to campaign effectively…” The unfamiliarity with the ground situation in India shows up in not realising that it is well-nigh impossible to come up with the figure of “the actual amount candidates need to campaign.” No candidate is ever willing to disclose the “actual amount” spent on her/his election campaign. One politician who admitted in a public meeting four years after an election that he had spent Rs.8 crore when the limit was Rs.25 lakh, also denied it when responding to a notice by the EC. All the votaries of so-called state funding of elections have never been able to come up with an amount that needs to be budgeted for because all the candidates, particularly the winning ones, and all the political parties are just not prepared to disclose the actual amount spent on elections.

The authors are also correct when they say that “A number of politicians (they) have spoken with agree that campaign finance laws need to be revisited.” Their next statement is however ambiguous. It says “None of them, however, is willing to speak out, fearing the fallout, associated with the mind-set linked to some segments of civil society and the state, one that inherently distrusts private accumulation of wealth.”

I am afraid their assessment gives far too much importance to civil society. How one wishes civil society had such influence in India! More importantly, who is or forms “the state”? Without going into the nitty-gritty of the mechanics of elections and ticket distribution which ensures that the choice of a voter is pre-constrained by the choices made by a set of political parties, it should not be difficult for scholars of political science to grasp the fact that the final control of “the state” in every democratic society lies with the political establishment. It seems hard to believe that the political establishment which can often become unanimous whenever its self-interest is involved, is so fearful of “some segments of civil society” that it is afraid to do what it thinks is right.

The same applies to their statement “Electoral corruption in India is a product of the institutions and systems that we have put in place.” The question that arises here is who is the “we” who have put “the institutions and systems” in place? Isn’t that, in the final analysis, the political establishment? Sure, some of the institutions and systems have been distorted beyond recognition, or even destroyed, by the political establishments of different eras but the situation today is the result of the treatment meted out to the systems and institutions over the year by different shades of the political establishment.

No transparency

The cat escapes the bag in their next sentence: “The limits on election spending, along with the other restrictive campaign finance rules of the EC, perpetuates a tightly-guarded socialist mind-set among many Indian policymakers, which often makes them wary of individual affluence.” The best democracy, according to the authors, will dawn in India when the “socialist mind-set” is eradicated and replaced by a presumably ‘capitalist mind-set’, when India will follow the freedoms given to the corporate sector to control electoral politics completely – as has been done by the Citizens United judgment of the US Supreme Court.

More money can certainly be allowed to be spent on elections provided there is transparency. How political parties have defied the decision of the Central Information Commission to comply with the RTI Act is too well known to be described here. That issue is now before the Supreme Court. The least that we can note, however, is that our political parties are not prepared to accept transparency in their internal functioning.

Jagdeep S. Chhokar is former Professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.