There was a time when dressing in hand-spun khadi was de rigueur for politicians. No longer. Led by our Prime Minister, politicians now dress like dandies. With enormous wealth at there disposal, particularly those who have been successful in the elections, the buzzword of the first decades after Independence ~ “Simple living, high thinking” ~ appears have lapsed in the limbo of history.

The difference between present-day politics and politics of the early days is fundamental. Earlier, people used to join politics for advancing some cause like social or economic justice, but present-day politics is only about grabbing power with the ultimate aim of personal aggrandizement. The sharp increase in the worth of politicians in successive elections would testify to the truth of this observation. Mahatma Gandhi had lived his entire life in self-imposed penury.

Our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was born with a silver spoon, did not leave behind anything of value except his ancestral house. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s simplicity was legendary. However, things changed by the 1980s. The freedom-fighting generation was nearly extinct; a new species of worldly-wise politicians had replaced them. Having witnessed the postretirement woes of their predecessors, the new entrants secured their future by voting themselves lifelong pensions and hefty pay revisions. Moreover, earning money by questionable means was no longer taboo; the Bofors scandal, in which the top political leadership appeared to be involved, had set a dubious precedent.

Also, by the 1980s with the rising population, constituencies had become unmanageably large and candidates found it difficult to connect with voters. Candidates then started campaigning with long cavalcades of cars blaring election slogans and plastering walls with election graffiti. After Mr TN Seshan put an end to these malpractices, candidates wooed voters with freebies like colour TV, gold coins, sarees and the like. Later, the largesse was institutionalised with parties offering free rice and a variety of subsidies in their manifestos.

Politics has moved a step further now; parties now offer caste-based reservations and cash incentives like PMKisan, Nyay, and Kalia. In this scheme of things, the party has gained in importance while the role of the candidate has become secondary. Meanwhile, industrialists and musclemen, who had supported politicians from behind the curtains, stepped out in the open. The public did not object to the presence of moneybags and dubious characters in politics because politics by then had become transactional.

The public wanted a representative who would help them with the police or administration rather than a principled person who would not support them if they were in the wrong. Things have deteriorated to the extent that voters of the new millennium neither know nor care about the person they elect. Huge cash and liquor seizures during elections show that many electors prefer instant gratification rather than giving the candidates a chance to fulfil their promises.

In any case, manifestos of most political parties are similar; in essence, every manifesto promises everything to everyone. It is quite another matter that few of the promises are ever realised; no party believes that it should be held accountable for not fulfilling the promises it made for getting elected. The road to power is straight. Political parties categorise voters according to their castes or religion; the voter acquiesces in this classification because a leader of the same caste or religion may help him after getting elected.

Most parties unashamedly employ strongmen who bring votes by appealing to the caste and religious sentiments of voters and if that fails, by bribing or terrorising voters. Politicians now have the temerity to say openly that after being elected they will only entertain persons who had voted for them. Election after election, we see the same persons vying for office, though their party may have changed in the interim. More often than not, the progeny of politicians themselves become politicians.

Election affidavits reveal that the worth of our richest politicians easily surpasses a few thousand crore rupees and the majority of our parliamentarians are crorepatis. We have to accept that politics is now a profession and a disreputable one at that. Amongst other things, public representatives have been caught voting for money, asking questions for money and watching pornography in the Assembly. It is an open secret that any person seriously contesting parliamentary elections requires a war chest of several crores.

Despite a ceiling on the amount of election expenditure, an unlimited amount of money can be spent on electioneering by political parties because the amount spent by parties is not included in computing the money spent by the individual candidate. Power being their ultimate goal, parties see no harm in spending humongous amounts for the success of their candidates. This squashes the chances of honest, ordinary persons ever entering Parliament.

Which is a pity because Parliament is supposed to represent the general public, the daridra narayan of Gandhiji, not moneybags or goondas alone. Loan defaulters, dons, religious charlatans all have represented us in Parliament. Carrying the matter to its logical conclusion, a national party has now fielded a lady accused of terrorist offences as also a person named in 242 FIRs. The 255th Report of the Law Commission on Electoral Reforms pointed out that unregulated or under-regulated election financing could lead to “lobbying and capture, where a sort of quid pro quo transpires between big donors and political parties/ candidates.”

This observation assumes added importance in light of the opacity of donations made through the recently introduced Electoral Bonds. Incidentally, 95 per cent of donations through Electoral Bonds have gone to the ruling party. As far back as 2014, on a PIL filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms, the Delhi High Court had held that both the Congress and the BJP had violated the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) by accepting contributions from overseas donors.

The Government’s response was to amend FCRA in 2016 to nullify the High Court’s judgment. When that proved insufficient, FCRA was again amended in 2018. This sequence of events would show the absence of any intention to curb foreign funding for elections, which could be from dodgy sources. During a pre-election meeting with political parties in August 2018, the Election Commission suggested a cap of 50 per cent of the expenditure ceiling limit per candidate for election spending by political parties. This was endorsed by all parties except the ruling party.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal to limit expenditure is yet to see the light of the day. The current elections have seen politicians plumbing the depths of indecency with their egregious behaviour and objectionable statements. As we approach the final phases, one is not sure if the nadir of political discourse has been reached or if we would be witness to further ignominy. Playing the devil’s advocate, one can say that Parliamentarians being part of our society are people like us.

Indeed, Indian society has a surfeit of persons who are literate but not educated, who have convictions but not values and it would indeed be strange if we would not find such people aspiring for political office. Attempts by the Courts to keep out criminals and the efforts of the Election Commission to prevent the use of money and muscle power in elections have not borne fruit. The Supreme Court had ordered that cases against politicians be fasttracked; the UP Government promptly responded by withdrawing all such cases. Nothing is ever heard about the thousands of FIRs filed for violation of the Model Code of Conduct during elections.

A new low was reached when cowed down by the fear of displeasing politicians, the Election Commission pleaded in the Supreme Court that it had no power to punish for infringement of its Model Code of Conduct. Everyone agrees that reform in electoral laws is needed for better people to be elected to legislative bodies. Precisely for this reason, legislators are loath to change the election law. For example, the Women’s Reservation Bill, which would reserve 33 per cent of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and State legislative assemblies, has been hanging fire for the last 11 years.

Perhaps, we can have a level playing field if the ceiling for election expenditure is brought to a really low limit so that even an ordinary citizen can vie for electoral office and violations of the expenditure limit can be detected. Then, canvassing through the electronic or print media, which is prohibitively expensive, would not be possible, forcing candidates to have personal contact with voters. Voters would then be able to form an informed judgment about their candidates rather than being swayed by alluring visuals and melodious tunes.

Again, with rising literacy and increased longevity, educational and age criteria can be laid down for public representatives. It should also be ensured that candidates for electoral office have some knowledge of law, public administration and finance. Further, to ensure a better quality of debate and more honest voting in Parliament, the procedure of the Lok Sabha could be amended so that the Government would fall only if a motion of no-confidence is passed. This change may encourage parties to field better quality candidates who would not be mere rubber stamps of the leaders.

Till the time the Election Commission, Parliament and the Supreme Court concur to give us better electoral laws and better representatives, we the voters can make a beginning by electing only decent and honest law makers and rejecting tainted aspirants, regardless of their party affiliation. Unless and until we the voters assert ourselves, we will continue to have representatives who are unworthy of our confidence.

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)