‘We don’t agree that any money coming from abroad [for politics] will completely change our thinking. Does it mean that if FDI is coming, government will be influenced by some other country?’
One of the paradoxes of the prime minister’s current campaign against black money is that it is happening at a time when his own government amended the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) to not just make it easier for foreign-based companies to donate money to political parties but also to retrospectively exonerate the Bharatiya Janata Party (and the Congress) from having broken the law by taking such donations in contravention of the FCRA as it stood at the time. This fact, and the refusal of parties like the BJP to subject their sources of funding to the RTI Act have raised questions about the sincerity of the government’s effort to cleanse India – and by extension, Indian politics – of the influence of money power.
As part of our ongoing series of interviews and articles on this issue, The Wire spoke to Ram Madhav, the BJP’s general secretary and a former member of the national executive of the RSS.
The BJP and Congress recently withdrew their appeals in the Supreme Court against a Delhi high court order that held they had violated the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA). This comes in the backdrop of the amendment to the FCRA through the Finance Bill 2016 in April that allows for the receipt of such funds. Considering Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken about electoral reforms and transparency in electoral and political funding, is the BJP comfortable being seen as on the same side as the Congress on this issue?
No, it is not a question of our being seen with someone, there are certain legal provisions that need to be followed by political parties. Our party will strictly abide by all those rules and regulations that we are mandated to follow. On the larger issue of funding of political parties, whenever we embark on major electoral reforms in this country, about which the prime minister has been talking about for the last several months, whenever we will embark on that exercise, which is long overdue, as part of that I am sure this issue of transparent funding of political parties will also come up. It will be part of that major electoral reform in this country and our party will certainly support any such comprehensive reform.
But when you operate in a given system, as a responsible national party, which is the ruling party of this country, we will strictly adhere to the rules and regulations that are in existence today.
Is anything concrete being done with regard to electoral reforms? Especially state funding, as it is currently being discussed and was even brought up recently by commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman?
Yes, that is what I said. One way is to look at things in [a] piecemeal manner. Funding is one such issue. Another is what the prime minister is trying to drive home. He is seeking a comprehensive electoral reform. He is saying there should be a national debate on “one nation, one election”. Can we hold elections to all the major electoral colleges at one time, namely parliament and legislatures? Once we decide about the major electoral reform, all these things can be discussed as part of it.
As Sitharaman said recently, electoral funding is an important issue and [we should discuss] how we can bring transparency to it. Whether there can be funding by the government to the parties or there can be complementarity between parties and [the] government in terms of electoral expenditure. Many things can be discussed. Like the parties are allowed today to spend certain amounts on each legislator and each legislator is also allowed to spend [a] certain amount of money on his or her own. Then the government can complement this funding by giving some funds from its side. Whether such a mechanism is possible or complete state funding is required, what are the issues [that may crop up] in [implementing] that. These are the issues which we would have to think [on]. So rather than looking at it on a piecemeal basis, the prime minister is stating, ‘let’s have a comprehensive look at it.’
‘One nation, one election’ requires amendments to seven constitutional articles. Considering the BJP’s strength in the Lok Sabha, where you have a majority, and the Rajya Sabha, where your numbers are inadequate to seek amendments, don’t you think this would just make the issue drag?
You will recall that all the major political parties in this country have spoken about the need for electoral reforms. It is not that only [the] BJP is talking about them. So there needs to be a larger consensus in order for the government to move forward on this. So, it is feasible, it is needed, but at the same time, it requires [the] building of [a] larger consensus because it involves major amendments to our constitution. That is why the prime minister said there should be a nationwide debate on this issue – that includes debates with the political parties.
Some amount of black money is expected to be extinguished with the demonetisation process and there are some fears that the new Rs 2,000 note will be withdrawn. Given this, will the process impact the move towards electoral reforms in any way?
You see, demonetisation has helped the country move in the direction of a ‘less cash’ economy – I am not using the term cashless but less cash. As a result, two things will happen as far as the impact on the electoral economy is concerned. There will be less of cash-based electioneering. That would also build a level playing field between the political parties. If there is no cash available, it is not available to anyone. And if funds would be available, they would be there for everyone and so a level playing field would be created, which is very much needed today in our country. But the second important thing is that it will bring a great amount of transparency into our electoral politics. Today though you are required to submit an account of all your funds, what you submit and what you actually spend is hugely different. I think that would immensely come down and there would be a greater transparency in our electioneering which would be good for the country.
A recent report by the Association of Democratic Rights noted that the BJP has not declared the sources behind 65% of its funds. The BJP insists that it is a party with a difference, but these figures don’t reflect that. Is the party planning to shift to a system of receiving donations with a more discernable trail than cash?
I said in the beginning itself, we follow the rules of the day. Whatever rules are there, they would be strictly adhered to. And we are living in the era of competitive politics. Here through systematic reforms, which the prime minister is talking about, if we bring in these two things – [a] level playing field and transparency – that will transform our electioneering in a very big way. So once these comprehensive reforms are put in place, obviously, our party would be more than happy to follow whatever guidelines come up.
Speaking of transparency, the BJP has been accused of adopting two different yardsticks for implementing the FCRA. You tightened the rules for NGOs receiving foreign funds but relaxed them for political parties, despite the fact that the latter contingent has not been very forthcoming with information about their accounts or their funds, not to mention their refusal to be included under the RTI act, as per the Central Information Commission’s (CIC) guidelines.
First of all, this is not [a] dichotomy or double standard. [The] NGO sector is different and elections are a totally different matter. If I say my party should have greater freedom in not disclosing funds under [the] FCRA but Congress should, then that would be [an example of] double standards. We are following the rules that are there. If tomorrow through reforms if we bring in a different system and rules, our party would follow that. NGOs are accountable for the funds they receive.
Foreign funding for political parties used to be prohibited under the FCRA. The aim was to prevent foreign groups from influencing the Indian polity, but now it has been allowed through subsidiaries. Are you okay with this idea?
First of all, we do not agree that any money coming from abroad will completely change our thinking. Does it mean that if Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is coming [into the country], the government will be influenced by some other country? No. So, if there is a rule, it would be strictly followed. As part of larger reforms whatever change would happen, we would be happy with it.
When the CIC demanded that all political parties be included under the RTI act, all the parties objected to the proposal. Do you think this needs to change?
At the moment our stand is that political parties need not be covered by [the] RTI as it is meant for people to know how public institutions function and how public money is being used. We are in full support of that instrument. Whether political parties need to be taken as public institutions is a debate which needs to be taken forward.
The BJP talks about believing in transparency, but RTI activists point to three legislations that the party has not handled well – Whistle Blowers Protection Act, the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act, and the Grievance Redressal Bill. All three laws are pending despite being crucial for promoting transparency.
We want a transparent system in our government. Towards that end, all the suggestions would be taken seriously. These are also the concerns of the RTI activists. These would be looked at by the government.
Finally, coming to demonetisation, initially people expected a third of the Rs 15 lakh crore black money thought to be held in the demonetised currency to be extinguished in the change to new notes. However, now it seems that a lot of money that should have gotten extinguished is actually ending up in banks. How will the government ensure that this exercise does not end up being an opportunity for money launderers?
The demonetisation decision was a historic one at one level and it was a first-of-its-kind decision anywhere in the world. No one has shown so much courage to, at one go, demonetise 86% of the existing currency. It was done with a very noble intention. We were confident that we would end up eliminating the black money component [of the economy]. What you are suggesting is something we will have to see. In the end of December, we will have the final figures.
What impact will it have on the future of the economy? Whether it should be seen as a success in our fight against black money, or, if despite our best efforts and intentions, we will not be able to get the desired results – this we will know once the final figures are out. But it has definitely broken the backbone of fake currency operators, terror financiers, narcotics traders and the mafias. It remains to be seen how much black money will be revealed. There are different versions and theories right now. But more than the actual figures, we would be closely watching the impact on our economy because the objective was to kill this parallel economy and have just one mainstream economy. If we succeed in that, it would be great for the country.
The government has launched awareness campaigns to promote the digital economy. As a party, are you doing anything to push the idea as well?
Yes, we have asked our party units, morchas to train and educate people on the use of digital platforms. Some literature has also been distributed to them in this regard. We have also held a meeting here which was addressed by union minister Piyush Goyal and our senior functionaries were briefed on the transition from a cash to less cash or digital economy. It is expected that they will spread the message at the lower levels.