A former Chief Election Commissioner had described elections as ‘the dance of democracy,’ but unfortunately, money and muscle power seem to be calling the tune for elections. The increasing use of illicit funds during elections could be gauged from a Press Note titled “Record seizures made during ongoing Assembly Elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh,” issued by the Election Commission on 10 November 2022, which states that seizures of Rs 71.88 crore had been made ‘in just a few days of the announcement of elections.’
This seizure was almost three times of the seizure (Rs 27.21 crore) during the entire 2017 Gujarat Assembly Elections. Similarly, seizures of Rs.50.28 crore had been made in Himachal Pradesh, which were almost five and a half times the seizure (Rs 9.03 crore), during the 2017 elections.
Significantly, 1.10 lakh litres of alcohol were seized in Gujarat, making a mockery of prohibition laws. Further, the DRI seized Rs 64 crore of smuggled toys and accessories, meant for illegal use during the Gujarat Elections. This is not unusual; in the recent by-elections in Munugode Assembly Constituency (Telangana) cash amounting to Rs 6.60 crore along with thousands of litres of liquor, and precious metals worth Rs. 1.78 crore were seized.
We have the infamous example of Dr. J Jayalalitha’s erstwhile constituency, RK Nagar in Chennai, where a bye-election was cancelled in April 2017, after Income-tax sleuths seized cash of Rs.5 crore from an associate of the Tamil Nadu Health Minister, as also distribution plans for another Rs 89 crore. Similarly, during the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, a sum of Rs 12 crore was seized by the Income-tax Department from a close relative of a politician in Vellore, prompting the Election Commission to cancel the election.
An earlier instance is that of the Aravakurichi and Thanjavur constituencies, where the Election Commission rescinded the poll notification after it found “large scale distribution of money and gifts to electors by candidates and political parties.”
The use of cash, liquor, and other inducements to bribe voters has been increasing from election to election. Many independent studies by social scientists have confirmed that well-heeled candidates spend much more than the legal limit; a recent study by Prof. Ashwani Kumar of Tata Institute of Social Sciences and two others have postulated that leading candidates in the 2017 Gujarat Assembly Elections spent more than ten times the official limit.
Studies by Vidhi Centre and Jindal Global Law School, also flag excessive use of money power in elections. Limiting election expenditure is difficult because the election law is full of loopholes. Currently, individuals and corporate entities can contribute unlimited funds to political parties. Also, political parties can spend unlimited amounts for propagating their agenda, even during elections.
Moreover, a candidate can rebut the presumption that third-party expenditure incurred in campaigning in his favour had been done with his authorisation. During every election, some small fries are caught ferrying cash, liquor, etc. but effective action like disqualification of the candidate or deregistration of the political party is never taken against parties and candidates at whose behest the electoral laws are broken. Also, all political parties, when in power, have tried their best to hide the identities of their donors, so that allegations of quid-pro-quo cannot be proved against the Government.
Despite the Government’s sanctimonious protestations, Electoral Bonds, which are bearer instruments of limited validity, appear to be the latest stratagem to hide the identities of donors. Amongst other electoral reforms, the institutions of General Observers, and Expenditure Observers (EOs) were created by TN Seshan, to curb malpractices during elections. Both observers are still appointed in all constituencies, but over time, empire-building by the IAS and some deft manoeuvring by the Government, have whittled down the role of the EO, who has to rely totally on State Government machinery, which has its own interests to safeguard.
No wonder, there are hardly any instances where an EO had detected excess expenditure and worthwhile action was taken on the EO’s findings. With money playing such an important role in elections, a poor man has as little chance of being elected to a State Assembly as of the meek inheriting the earth. Statistics bear this out; 89 per cent of Lok Sabha MPs are crorepatis with an average worth of Rs.21 crore.
The percentage of crorepatis has increased in each election; 58 per cent of our MPs were crorepatis in 2009, which shot up to 83 per cent in 2014. State legislatures mirror the Lok Sabha in this respect; 39 of the 40 MLAs of the recently constituted Goa Assembly are crorepatis. Other State legislatures have a similar, but slightly lower percentage of crorepatis.
Criminality amongst MPs is alarming; 233 Lok Sabha MPs (43 per cent) face criminal charges, with nearly 29 per cent being charged with serious crimes like rape, murder, attempt to murder, or crimes against women. One BJP MP faces terror charges and a Congress MP has 240 criminal cases against him. Disturbingly, the number of MPs charged with serious crimes has risen by 109 per cent since 2009.
In a development that may not augur well for democracy, Parliament is sitting for fewer and fewer days, with more and more time being wasted by disruptions. Between 1952 and 1972 the Lok Sabha sat, on an average, for 120 days in a year, which came down to 63 in the Fifteenth Lok Sabha (2009-2014) and 66 in the Sixteenth Lok Sabha (2014-2019). The Seventeenth Lok Sabha sat for 149 days till the Winter Session of 2019, with the last seven sessions of the Lok Sabha being curtailed. Question hour functioned for 47 per cent of the scheduled time in Rajya Sabha and 34 per cent in Lok Sabha.
Productivity, i.e., the number of hours the Lok Sabha actually functioned compared to the number of hours officially earmarked for work was more than 100 per cent till the Twelfth Lok Sabha, declining to 91 per cent in the Thirteenth Lok Sabha, 87 per cent in the Fourteenth Lok Sabha, touching a nadir of 61 per cent in the Fifteenth Lok Sabha, before improving slightly for the Sixteenth Lok Sabha, which had the dubious distinction of sitting for the second lowest time, compared to any other full-term Lok Sabha. State Legislatures fare even worse in terms of the number of days worked; most State legislatures work only for 30 to 40 days in a year, with some honourable exceptions like the Kerala Legislative Assembly which sits for an average of 150 days in a year.
Compared to legislative bodies in other parts of the world, our legislators are an underworked lot; the British Parliament sits for an average of 150 days, while the US Congress clocks more than 100 days each year. The attendance of members during crucial discussions is not up to the mark; PM Modi recently warned his party MPs for their laxity. Hence, many laws are enacted without adequate discussion.
Such laws are often not acceptable to the public; the highly contentious Farming Acts passed without sufficient debate, led to protracted protests and had to be repealed within fifteen months. Unfortunately, the Farming Acts were repealed without discussion, depriving citizens of a chance to know why these Acts, touted as a panacea for farming sector ills, had suddenly lost their glitter. Adjudicating on an amendment to the Negotiable Instruments Act, that had led to a pendency of 60 lakh cases, an earlier Chief Justice of India observed that this large volume of litigation had arisen because the consequences of the amendment had not been adequately considered.
Similarly, the imposition of prohibition in many States has led to the preoccupation of the police with prohibition offences, as also a flood of litigation in lower courts. While releasing the Good Governance Index in December 2021, the then Vice-President Naidu had observed that good governance needed good legislatures to oversee the performance of the executive. This is a pious hope, easier expressed than realized.
Rather, the prophecy of C Rajagopalachari seems to be coming true: “We all ought to know that Swaraj will not at once or, I think, even for a long time to come, be better government or greater happiness for the people. Elections and their corruption, injustice, and the power and tyranny of wealth, and the inefficiency of administration, will make a hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us. Men will look regretfully back to the old regime of comparative justice, and efficient, peaceful, more or less honest administration. The only thing gained will be that as a race we will be saved from dishonour and subordination” (Jail Diary, 1920).