India went into its 17th general election on 11 April 2019. It was spread over five weeks of intensive campaigning. A total of 2293 parties are in the fray, of which 149 were registered in February and March this year.

The new entrants have exotic names, such as Bahujan Azad Party (Sitamarhi, Bihar), Samoohik Ekta Party (Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh), Rashtryia Saaf Niti Party (Jaipur, Rajasthan), Sabsi Badi Party (Delhi), Bharosa Party (Telangana) and New Generation People’s Party (Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu). Nearly all catered to specific caste/subcaste or trade affiliations.

The multiplicity of these parties, nearly all of them unrecognized by the Election Commission has prompted EC to allot symbols ranging from a mundane battery torch to a cricket bat, a plebian auto-rickshaw and an air-conditioner for the affluent class.

The voter has to countenance a bewildering array of candidates on a single keypad of an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM). Registration of a new political party costs just Rs. 25,000.

In addition, ECI requires individual affidavits from at least 100 members of the party to the effect that the person is a registered elector and that he/she is not a member of any other political party registered with the Commission duly sworn before a First Class Magistrate/Oath Commissioner/Notary Public.

A Delhi-based law firm even claims on its website that it specializes in registering new parties and that it has helped register over 400 political parties. It thus becomes facile to register a political party with a hundred ‘dummy’ candidates whose antecedents are often dubious, even unverifiable, and makes do with murky finances.

Indian political parties received the bulk of donations from undisclosed sources in FY 2018 (51.40 per cent) by way of individual contributions less than Rs. 20,000.

According to Section 13A of the Income-tax Act, political parties are exempt from income-tax provided they maintain books of accounts and record details of individuals making donations over Rs 20,000. While individual candidates have to observe a ceiling imposed by ECI on their campaigns, no such limit is prescribed for expenses incurred either by a party or the leader for propagating the party’s programme.

The establishment of new parties like All India Ravidas Samta Party, Ambedkar Kranti Dal Fauji Janta Party (Military People’s Party), Rashtriya Vyapari Party, Nasha Mukt Bharat Party, Sikshit Berozgar Sena, Bhartiya Imaandar Party, has increased the number of parties that participated in GE-1951 at 53 to zoom to 465 in 2014, i.e. a phenomenal ratio of 0.86 parties for every Lok Sabha seat.

Only about a fifth of all registered parties compete in India’s national elections. And what happens to the remaining 80 per cent that cannot or do not put up candidates? That is precisely where the rub lies. A large percentage of these parties maybe fronts for larger national or regional parties.

Parties also register multiple candidates to get around legal caps on how much an individual can spend, with the most popular member getting most of the resources.

Not only do these parties pander to caste/sub-caste equations and generate support for larger parties, but are also useful in collecting ‘contributions’, nearly all of it in cash and below the ECI’s Rs. 20,000 limit for individuals.

According to an analysis in IndiaSpend, onefourth, or 1786, of these unrecognized parties are in Uttar Pradesh. The report noted that between 2013-14 and 2015-16, unrecognized parties in Rajasthan declared the highest amount of donations ~ Rs 10.79 crore ~ followed by parties from Telangana with Rs 3.82 crore and Haryana with Rs 2.74 crore.

Among the unrecognised parties that declared the highest donations, ranging from Rs 3.7 crore to Rs 2.3 lakh, are the Indian People’s Green Party, the National Unionist Zamindara Party and Shining India Party in Rajasthan, Rashtriya Ahinsa Mancha in West Bengal, Dharmarajya Paksha in Maharashtra, Lok Satta Party in Telangana, Aarakshan Virodhi Party and Haryana Lokhit Party in Haryana.

The ADR report also pointed out that the National Unionist Zamindara Party, registered in Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan, had declared that it had received donations amounting to Rs 3.70 crore during 2013-14.

Of this, voluntary contributions amounted to Rs 11.56 crore during 2014-15 and Rs 6 lakh during 2015-16, according to its audit report. However, its contribution reports were not available in the public domain. The report also discovered a “lucrative political economy” revolving around elections, with “sundry small parties using elections to evade taxes, reroute black money and make quick bucks by coercing serious candidates to pay for withdrawing their candidates.”

Their narrow focus ~ on the sub-region, or a particular caste or community ~ often multiplies their prospects of election. The Apna Dal finds support mainly among the OBC communities of the Varanasi- Mirzapur region while the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party appeals to the Rajbhar community in eastern Uttar Pradesh, which constitutes about 18 per cent of the population.

By appealing to their respective communities, these parties manage to split the vote-bank and earn the leverage to negotiate a ‘price’ for withdrawal from the election process. The votes that these small parties collect are often geared to styming the chances of a frontrunner from an Opposition party and then extract a ‘price’ for supporting the highest polling candidate.

Lucknow-based Adarsh Rashtriya Vikas Party received Rs 88 lakh as donation in the fiscal year ending March 2012. The party spent Rs 84 lakh ~ Rs 25 lakh on advertising and Rs 27 lakh on stationery. In the 2012 assembly polls, the party contested 68 seats and all of its candidates lost their security deposits, meaning they failed to secure one-sixth of the valid votes cast in their respective constituencies.

In 2012 again, a Kanpur- based political party, Akhil Bhartiya Nagrik Seva Sangh, received a donation of Rs 8 lakh, and had a bank balance of Rs 18 lakh. The ECI did not have any record of its participation in any election.

[To be concluded] 

(The writer is a senior public policy analyst and commentator.)