The prime minister’s words will be meaningless, other than to draw attention to Rahul Gandhi’s cause, unless he supports them with actions to reform political funding.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s claim of producing a political “earthquake” with his allegations of personal corruption against the prime minister has proved as elusive as the government’s assertion that demonetisation would unearth massive amounts of black money accumulated by unscrupulous businessmen. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hit back at Gandhi by ridiculing him and even physically mimicking him. By doing so, the prime minister has unwittingly paid enough attention to Gandhi and the issues he has raised. One salutary effect of the unedifying political discourse is that the question of political funding and its key role in fostering the black economy eco system is now at the centre stage. The low level of verbal duel between the opposition and ruling party has also produced some delightful Freudian slips, such as law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claiming that the prime minister is as pure as the Ganga, quite forgetting that the river becomes totally polluted by the time it reaches Varanasi, Modi’s constituency. Indeed, the Ganga is a perfect metaphor for our corrupt and dirty political funding system.
The prime minister has made fun of Gandhi but has refrained from saying anything about the controversial Birla and Sahara diaries seized from their business offices by the Income Tax department in 2012 and 2013. Gandhi has asked Modi to respond to the contents of the diaries, which record alleged payments made by the companies to important leaders of various political parties, including Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat. Earlier, the matter was taken to the Supreme Court by activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan but the judges said they needed substantive evidence to entertain the petition. Mere recovery of diaries by the tax department was not adequate evidence.
The key question here is why did the the tax department not pursue further probe into the authenticity of the seized diaries by handing them over to the CBI, Enforcement Directorate or other competent authorities. This question will not go away from the public mind for some time to come. The Supreme Court can judge the matter only if the investigation authorities at least try to probe the matter further to determine the veracity of the alleged payments made by the Aditya Birla and Sahara groups to various top leaders. That this hasn’t happened is a continuing source of suspicion.
Gandhi has thrown this at Modi in the middle of the demonetisation debate. The context clearly is that the political parties and big businesses are not being touched by the demonetisation exercise, which has so far ended up targeting the poor and the middle class. The tax department is questioning small amounts of a few lakh rupees deposited by ordinary folks, but no one is asking how the political parties and businesses have dealt with the massive amounts of cash at their disposal. The common man has also understood this well enough to start asking questions.
So Gandhi is possibly using the Birla-Sahara diaries to pitch the nexus between business and politics in a manner that tarnishes Modi’s image, even if it equally taints several senior Congress leaders like Sheila Dikshit and Digvijay Singh, who too are named in the diaries as having allegedly received specific sums of money. By doing so, Gandhi may be attempting to project himself as an outsider to the ancien regime run by veteran leaders, including Modi. If that is so, then Modi would seem to have helped Gandhi by suggesting he was still a “youth leader” trying to learn public speaking. Indeed, Modi’s act of ridiculing Gandhi as someone still learning the ropes reinforces the “outsider” label the Congress vice president is seeking within the political system and indeed within his own party.
Whatever the outcome of this running duel between the prime minister and the Congress vice president, the issue of transparency in political funding has become the primary agenda in the ongoing debate over demonetisation. The most hypocritical provision in law enabling political parties to accept cash upto Rs 20,000 from individuals even while keeping their names undisclosed has come under sharp focus. The prime minister has agreed to review this toxic provision which for years has legitimised large-scale corporate money laundered into the political system. The election commission has proposed that the limit be brought down to Rs 2,000 for individual cash contributions. This won’t work as political parties will simply split the black money received from businesses into lots of Rs 2,000. It is time every individual cash contribution is backed by either a PAN number or Aadhar card.
The prime minister waxes eloquently about tightening the benami law but the individual cash contributions to political parties is the largest benami framework legitimised by law.
This has to be fixed urgently. At least the Supreme Court can give some directive in this respect even if it finds the evidence not substantive in the Birla and Sahara diaries case. The final objective of political funding reform should be that every contribution to political parties is made public and the financing of politics is done through an institutional mechanism which does not involve direct contact between the donor, a business house or individual and the donee, represented by political parties. If this framework is adopted by a consensus, scandals like the illegal Vedanta contribution to the BJP and Congress and the retrospective change in law to legalise the act would not occur.
We must quickly move to a system in which corporates pay a one-time election cess which is paid directly into a fund managed by the election commission. This fund could also be supplemented by the Centre with tax payers’ money. And some of the money kept for cleaning the Ganga can also be used for the purpose. It might help purify Modi’s image, which is likened to the Ganga by his partymen.