Immediately on the heels of his demonetization move, PM Narendra Modiji came out with another suggestion – that of making elections in India state funded. The move is aimed to attempt a total cleanup of the entire political system in the country in conjunction with the war that he has started on black money.
The idea is not new, in fact it is already being done in many states of USA in various forms. Even where it has been in force for quite some time there are proponents both for and against state funding of elections.
State funding can be done either directly, ie the necessary money for election campaign work could be given by the state to the candidate. Here either an amount could be fixed and equally distributed to all candidates, or grants could be provided to those candidates who restrict their election spending to the prescribed limits.
Or it can be done indirectly, where the candidate may utilize state resources for campaign work. It could also be a combination of both.
In India, political parties already enjoy indirect benefits from government in the form of free use of government land, accommodation, and various forms of tax exemptions.
What are the benefits of state funded elections –
The biggest benefit would be that a certain level of transparency and accountability will come into the system. Elections would stop becoming the favorite avenue of money launderers and black money holders. The undue influence that corporate world exert on political parties in order to squeeze out favors from the future elected government in return for campaign funding would also become nonexistent.
Contributions to political parties often enjoy a variety of tax exemptions. With the advent of state funded elections, a major method of legal tax evasion would shut down by itself.
Then of course, it will create a level playing field for all, be it a candidate from an established party, or an independent one. Even ordinary citizens will be able to contest and have a fair chance against established candidates. As a result, fresh young faces without political connections could also enter politics without the worry of how to finance their campaigns. One can expect that this would lead to a more competitive and innovative electioneering by candidates and the elected representatives would present a more balanced representation of the society.
The use of tax money to fund elections would also create an extra incentive for the voter to be more knowledgeable of the campaign issues of the different candidates. This in general could lead to a more efficient government coming into power.
One could also expect that the undue and wasteful spending on elections would reduce and also public disturbance creating functions and rallies would be avoided by the candidates in order to best utilize the money allocated to them.
In a multiparty political system like that exists in India, state funding of elections would put a huge extra burden on public exchequer. For instance, let us take the 2014 general elections. There were 8251 candidates. The limit set on spending by the Election Commission was Rs 70 lakhs for bigger states and Rs. 54 lakhs for the smaller states. Even assuming the lower figure of 50 lakhs per candidate, the state would have had to shell out 4125.5 crores.
To put this figure in perspective, this amount converts to about 400 kms of 4 lane NH level roads at todays rates.
And this is not even counting the money that would have to be spent on the recampaign and election in the seats given up by those candidates who contested and won from 2 seats as is done by almost all big leaders of major political parties. Add in the amounts that would be required for state elections, and local body elections, and we face a rather humongous figure. In a country where 76 million people struggle to get safe drinking water at affordable costs, this kind of money is not easily given away.
State funding of elections has its own set of drawbacks. Your tax money will go into supporting even those candidates who have criminal and corruption cases against them. And you will end up paying higher taxes even while the same set of corrupt politicians will find loopholes into how to spend ill gained money over and above what the state has provided, thereby defeating the purpose of the entire exercise.
Apart from this, there are chances of accusations of partiality of the state machinery towards independents. Scams and scandals would arise where election money is used for other purposes.
In the long term, caste and community politics would become stronger with the general perception in the common mans mind that if he is spending his tax money then why shouldn’t a person from his caste or community come into power.
There is also a risk of political parties becoming organs of state, thereby losing their connect with the common man and his troubles. Such a scenario could also be fertile soil for the rise of a dictator.
The state could fund the election campaigns of every candidate in every election that takes place in the country by limiting the election money to really small amounts. In this case however, the question of restriction to freedom of speech could easily come up as is now being seen in the USA where the system of state funded elections are in use.
The other, and more saner option would be to utilize a small portion of this money and bring the following changes in the existing system:
• Strengthen Election Commission to supervise all transactions of all political bodies, review reports and submit them to open viewing by public
• Empower the Election Commission to take strict legal action if its scrutiny is in any way stone walled.
• Audit of party finances at frequent intervals by an external agency employed by the Election Commission, the reports of which be submitted to the EC directly.
• Complete ban on anonymous donations
• All donor names and amounts donated be uploaded on the party website, or the social media platform of the candidate for easy viewing by the general public. These details would be cross verified during the audits
• Political parties be made fully open to RTI Act
• Plugging of loopholes in the Representation of the Peoples Act and Conduct of Election Rules. For instance, the act provides for a ceiling on the candidate expenses in elections but does not say anything of other party spending on the election expenses of the said candidate. Thus, the candidates are able to show their personal expenses as within the limits prescribed by the EC, where on the other hand, the party spends inordinate amount on the campaigning and that cannot be restricted or questioned by the EC.
• A very strict implementation of limits prescribed by the EC on election spending and penalties for those who spend beyond the limit
• A provision for grants to those candidates who stand without the backing of a political party and are unable to mobilize finances for their campaign.
To Conclude –
State funded elections is an idea that could easily be considered in future. But before that, we need to fix the loopholes and discrepancies in our system. And then we need to grow into a developed nation where every citizen has easy access to at least the basic necessities in life. Attempting such an exercise in todays India would only lead to throwing away of much needed money into a rather costly move to counter corruption where the same benefits could be attained by putting a portion of that money into cleaning up the existing system.