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The persistence of the political establishment has to be admired. Just as it has successfully prevented all attempts at instituting any effective check on corruption for 42 years now, it has been trying to bring in state funding of elections for 37 years. And now, a new attempt is underway.
The law minister announced in December 2010 that regional and national consultations on electoral reforms would be held all over the country in association with the Election Commission. The last of the seven regional consultations was held in Guwahati on June 5, 2011. The national consultation, originally scheduled for July, is yet to happen.
Without waiting for the consultation process to be over, the law ministry has prepared a draft Cabinet note, proposing state funding for women and SC/ST candidates, and circulated it to several ministries for comments. The note repeatedly stresses that there has been "complete unanimity on the need for curbing the role of money power in elections", thereby creating an impression that, by association, the unanimity was on state funding of elections, whereas state funding was consistently opposed by no less a person than the chief election commissioner (CEC) himself in all the seven regional consultations.
With the concluding national consultation being expected within the next month, what's the need to initiate the note now? Another question: is the outcome of these consultations pre-determined? If yes, then why hold the consultations?
The draft Cabinet note uses two clever stratagems to make a beginning towards its aim of getting full state funding for elections. The first is the "foot-in-the-door" technique. The note proposes state funding only for women and SC/ST candidates, for now. The actual intention comes through in a paragraph that says, "Keeping in view the overall interest and the economic and financial scenario in the country, it may not be desirable to consider full state funding at this juncture." It is obvious that full state funding is intended to follow at some suitable juncture in the future.
The other stratagem is to link the proposal for state funding with a persistent demand-disqualifying people with criminal cases pending against them from contesting elections. This provision comes with several safeguards which have a strong potential of rendering it toothless in implementation. Repeated reports, commissioned by the government itself, have unambiguously recommended that state funding of elections should not even be thought of, before some pre-requisites such as internal democracy in political parties and complete transparency in their financial affairs is ensured.
The most cited report in this connection is that of the Indrajit Gupta committee submitted in 1999. The paragraph of this report, quoted most often by the political establishment, says, "The committee sees full justification, constitutional, legal as well as on grounds of public interest, for grant of state subvention to political parties, so as to establish such conditions where even the parties with modest financial resources may be able to compete with those who have superior financial resources." This clearly gives the impression of the well-endowed political parties being in sympathy with their less-endowed brethren.
Those who quote the above paragraph overlook, intentionally or otherwise, the opening paragraph of the "conclusion" of the same report which says, "Before concluding, the committee cannot help expressing its considered view that its recommendations being limited in nature and confined to only one of the aspects of the electoral reforms may bring about only some cosmetic changes in the electoral sphere. What is needed, however, is an immediate overhauling of the electoral process whereby elections are freed from the evil influence of all vitiating factors.... Meaningful electoral reforms in other spheres of electoral activity are also urgently needed".
The Law Commission, in its 170th report, the most comprehensive document on the subject, titled "Reform of the Electoral Laws, said in June 1999: "...(I)t is absolutely essential that before the idea of state funding (whether partial or total) is resorted to, the provisions suggested in this report relating to political parties (including the provisions ensuring internal democracy, internal structures) and maintenance of accounts, their auditing and submission to Election Commission are implemented.... (T)he implementation of (those) provisions...should be pre-condition to the implementation of the provisions relating to partial state funding.... If without such pre-conditions, state funding, even if partial, is resorted to, it would not serve the purpose underlying the idea of state funding... The state funding, without the aforesaid pre-conditions, would merely become another source of funds for the political parties and candidates at the cost of public exchequer... The state funding, even if partial, should never be resorted to unless the other provisions mentioned aforesaid are implemented lest the very idea may prove counter-productive and may defeat the very object underlying the idea of state funding of elections".
The dangers of state funding have not only been pointed out by government appointed committees and commissions but also by the Election Commission, and by CECs individually. Former CEC, J M Lyngdoh said: "That is a useless thing. It is a red herring. It doesn't help anybody." The current CEC, S Y Quraishi said, "State funding is dangerous. It will not stop illegal expenses...State funding will not stop illegal expenses. In fact, more money will be available to the candidates."
The proposal to introduce state funding for a section of the candidates, despite all the cautions and warnings, does make one wonder about the real intentions behind the move. There are no prizes for guessing the answer, and one wonders if the change of the law minister will change anything.
( The writer is a former dean and director in-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad)