call for state funding of elections has been made by former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh, who had led two UPA governments over a span of 10 years. Notably, however, the idea arose in him while he was in the Opposition and at the receiving end of the money power of the ruling side. He notes that a single party today has access to 90 per cent of the election funds, the reference obviously being to the BJP which liberally spent money in election after election since it took power in Delhi in 2014. This happened again in the recent Lok Sabha polls. Where this money came from is not known to the general public because India is the epicentre of black money or unaccounted funds.
Election Commission has rules governing the extent to which a candidate can spend money for the campaign, but this is flouted with impunity by one and all in the election arena. Huge publicity in elections has become a norm for the main contending sides, and this is not possible without immense amounts of money being spent by way of, not only publicity but mostly in outright purchase or silencing of voices of dissent and opposition. Gone are the days when posters, vehicles and loud-speakers took the bulk of the spend. State after state, the BJP has spent the incredible amounts of money; though such spends do not automatically translate into votes. Most people today have a mind of their own. At the same time it has to be admitted that the habitations of the poor are now happy hunting grounds for candidates. Their agents who walk in with loads of money for distribution before the polling day distribute cash in handfuls. Unfortunately this is not limited to the poorer sections of society in under developed habitations only. Elections in urban belts across the country, including Orissa, have demonstrated how willingly the educated urbanite accepts money for votes. The poor, too, who anyway are deprived of gains in the ensuing power-play seem willing to make hay while the sun shines in the form of electoral campaigns.
While the BJP is having access to huge funds or collections in the name of elections, what cannot be contested is that the Congress party enjoyed the same privilege in the past. Every business house paid willingly through its nose to the ruling party then and does so now, by way of donations. While the bulk used to be in unaccounted-for cash earlier, now the Electoral Bonds have become a safer bet for both sides. If a government pulls the plug, an industrialist can hardly hope to make a success out of his scam-grab-run program. The concept of genuine entrepreneurship has long been butchered in India. Such are the controls in the hands of the establishment even in the age of the so-called Liberalization – a period, at its advent, was thought to be an age for a free-for-all in starting a business with less of controls and a perceived end to the era of license raj. Such a golden age has not dawned on India. There are more of bureaucratic controls and requirement for licenses today for start of a unit than was the case around the 1990s. India refuses to change for the better.
Introduction of electoral reforms is an idea being floated around for a long time, through decades, but nothing tangible has happened other than the introduction of electronic voting machines (EVM). There are those who still wonder whether the 2019 LS polls were subverted through manipulation of the EVM. Prima facie, there is no justifiable ground to suspect the system could be manipulated. But, in today’s India, anything is possible.
Mammohan Singh quoting the scriptures at this juncture, years after he lost power, means little. When he and the Congress party were at their zenith, no thought about electoral reforms or introduction of state funding of elections – as he proposed now – were paid heed. It is not that the idea was not mooted during his decade long government. He was silently game with the way things were. Ten years is a long period in a nation’s governance history. While Singh can have some claim for credit of the haphazard economic reforms he might have worked for under the prime ministership of PV Narasimha Rao, time stood still for him later when he himself sat in the prime minister’s chair. While electoral reforms are a call of the times, Manmohan is hardly the appropriate person to give a call for changes. The question however is also as to who will bell the cat. Narendra Modi could be as comfortable with the present scenario as Singh was during the two UPA terms. All these people clamour for great social and systemic changes only when out of power, but once they climb up on the seat, they all sing different tunes and turn deaf.