With the Bhartiya Janata Party and the Congress withdrawing their appeals in the Supreme Court against a 2014 Delhi high court order that had found their receipt of donations from an Indian subsidiary of Vedanta to be illegal – even after the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) was amended earlier this year to allow for such receipts from foreign subsidiaries – it is increasingly being asked if the BJP is a party with a difference when it comes to political probity and transparency.
National Secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), D. Raja spoke to The Wire about the Modi government’s varying stance on the issue of FCRA when it came to the funding of NGOs and political parties. Wondering whether the BJP is really committed to its fight against black money and corruption, he also spoke about the need for electoral reforms and state funding of elections as a means of achieving this objective.
Excerpts from the interview:
The Narendra Modi government has adopted a dual yardstick when it comes to funding political parties and non-government organisations through foreign money, while the norms for political parties have been relaxed through amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act via the Finance Bill this year. Do you agree with this approach?
The issue has been blown out of proportion for the NGOs, but in the case of political parties, they have taken an opposite view. Political funding continues to be an issue. In fact, I remember when comrade Indrajit Gupta was the general secretary of our party, one business house sent a cheque. Comrade Indrajit called me, as I was working under him, and said, look at this, and then we decided to send it back. But I cannot say the same thing about all the political parties. Because whether political parties can accept funding from corporate houses or foreign companies, the issue remains. It has not yet been settled. As CPI, as Left parties, we can say, we don’t accept, but we will not be able to say the same about others [and] whether they should not accept.
As per the rules amended in 2003, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister, it was made mandatory for all the parties to give the source of all donations of Rs 20,000 and more. Has that law proved sufficient in ensuring that illegal money did not get into the political system?
The income tax law demands that if you take a donation or Rs 20,000 and above then you should reveal the source. It should not be from a questionable source and you will have to reveal it. That we do. The income tax authorities have had no problem from our party so far and even the Supreme Court once had a word of praise for our party. The Election Commission also fixes a limit for spending in assembly and parliamentary constituency elections. But I do not think the Election Commission is really in a position to check violations of the same despite their efforts.
Still [unaccounted] money is spent in large amounts. Probably my party is not even able to spend that much amount, but some parties spend much more. You are supposed to provide the candidate expenditure on a daily basis, but the party expenditure is much more. Some parties engage helicopters [and] special flights to ferry their leaders. They also have centralised expenses which go into the party account, and there is no ceiling for party account, while for the candidates there is a limit.
So, it is not an even fight?
Yes, it does not provide a level playing field to all the parties. This is where we talk about state funding. It is not a new idea because when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister, he had constituted a committee led by Indrajit Gupta in which many stalwarts were members and these included Manmohan Singh, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and [former speaker] Somnath Chatterjee among other.
They suggested state funding of elections and they suggested that some special cess must be imposed and there were several recommendations. But at no point since has the parliament discussed it or the Election Commission convened a meeting to discuss the idea.
Prime Minister Modi has raised the issue of electoral reforms several times in the recent past. Do you think he is really serious about them?
One speaks about electoral reforms. But what do we discuss about them? One is the first-past-the-post system, which has many lacuna and defects in it. The final count does not really reflect the will of the people. Because out of ten candidates, a candidate who wins 25 or 30% votes becomes the representative of 100% of the voters. So that is why we are asking why can’t we think of proportional representation system. We can even consider having both the candidate list and party list as it is there in some countries. This is called a multi-candidate election. Before going for another system, you can have this or proportional representation party wise. In some countries, both are there.
The other part is state funding. That is the real question, but we are not even discussing it. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not touched that point.
Modi has also been speaking about ‘one nation, one election’. Do you agree with this concept to hold simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies?
How can that be feasible when you have political diversity? The Lok Sabha and state assemblies have fixed tenures so how can you just finish their terms to achieve this goal and what is the guarantee in the future that a government in the states or at the Centre will not fall mid-term. This also shows the mindset of BJP and Modi – one nation, one religion, one party, one leader. What would happen to our democracy then, it would be put in peril.
When it comes to submitting the details of contribution to the Election Commission, two major flaws have come to light which were pointed out by the Association for Democratic Reforms. One is that the Rs 20,000 limit is being exploited. For example, the Bahujan Samaj Party has over the last 11 years claimed that all the donations have been less than Rs 20,000 and therefore there is no need for it to submit the names or PAN details of the donors. The other national parties have also been guilty of making an incomplete submission and not giving the details of all the donors. In the last ten years, the Congress has not disclosed details of 87% of the funds, while the BJP has not disclosed the details of 65% of the funds, and even the CPI and other national parties have been found wanting to a lesser degree. So what is the way to clean up the political funding system?
Actually, it is true that the parties will have to be honest. We do take over Rs 20,000 from a lot of well-wishers and our units also collect from markets and make door-to-door collections. It is difficult to keep track of donors in all cases.
So after demonetisation and this push for digital payments, do you think the parties should also change the way they operate?
That will take time. Through this demonetisation, one attempt is to bring more people in this banking system. If it succeeds or if there is indeed a good intent behind the exercise, then you would need adequate preparation and necessary infrastructure to achieve results. But, what about bank branches and their spread? There has been no recruitment of bank employees for a long time. Just look at the figures over the last decade. How much has the staff strength and number of branches changed in the last ten years? So till that improves, a change would be difficult.
In the case of cooperative banks, even we make the demand that loans of farmers and handloom weavers and other sections be waived. In some states, the governments do that. But how do we support those banks is also important. There is also a need to support their employees and ensure they get their wages. Often much of the work is outsourced by banks.
This leads to other unwanted practices. For example, if a student takes an education loan and does not repay, the banks engage third parties for recovery and sends goondas to collect the funds. There have been suicides too because of this, like a few in Tamil Nadu, and that too for small amounts. But when it comes to big corporates responsible for huge non-performing assets of the banks, the government hides their names.
So, you believe while the Modi government is targeting small defaulters, it is letting go of the big fish?
The Supreme Court asked the Reserve Bank of India to reveal their names but they sought refuge under the Banking Act and secrecy clauses to not reveal the names. Even All India Bank Employees Association has released the list of the willful defaulters but the government has not published the names.
Considering that the BJP has in the last few years emerged as the party which receives the maximum number of funds and it has now also started wooing corporate money through amendments in the FCRA, do you think it would be really keen on pushing forth with the political funding or electoral reforms?
The BJP said sometime in February that they had decided that every district should have a party office and that is why they have started constructing buildings. My doubt since the day of demonetisation has been why is it that no corporate house questioned the decision and each one hailed it. That itself had raised questions about how the demonetisation exercise has been executed.
Are you saying BJP is not serious about fighting corruption and removing black money from the system?
BJP is actually resorting to political tricks to scare other parties as if it has nothing to hide. Then let them come up with state funding or electoral reforms. Now in the case of black money also why is it that the is BJP not talking about implementing the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act or the Whistleblowers Protection Act. There have also been reports on black money which have been submitted to the Modi government by National Institute of Public Finance and Policy National Council of Applied Economic Research and National Institute of Financial Management. The government has said on the floor of the house that it was examining them. But what has come out of them, nobody knows. If a debate takes place, I will ask these questions.