The Rs 20,000 ceiling introduced on political funding and the electoral bonds are only a start to bring about transparency in political funding, said Arjun Ram Meghwal, Union Minister of State for Finance.
He spoke about how Ambedkar had supported universal franchise even in the midst widespread criticism that India was not mature enough to handle democracy. “The idea was always to celebrate election as a festival. Now, Indian democracy is secure due to its citizens,” he said.
In his speech, he raised an important issue of making voting compulsory and urged people to deliberate on whether voting is a voluntary right or can the country think on the lines of introducing positive punishment to those who fail to cast their vote.
He acknowledged the inconvenience caused to the citizens due to the imposition of Model Code of Conduct and said simultaneous elections are being looked at as a solution to remedy the problem. He reiterated his faith in Indian democracy and said, “Democracy is the only way to make India a global power”.
Muralidhar Rao, BJP National General Secretary shared his thoughts on transparency in political funding. He said, “After independence, for the first time a government has initiated the topic of political funding. Political system and democracy have succeeded in the country. We have to make it more transparent and efficient for the development of Indian masses.”
Quoting that anonymous donations are comparatively less in BJP with a share of 65% as compared to Congress which has a share of 83% and BSP which has trumped all parties with a share of 100%, he said BJP has always shown its commitment to bring transparency in the democratic process. He was of the opinion that this is the best time to achieve this goal as the party in power has a good leadership and popular majority.
“People have trust and expectations from the government that it will take revolutionary steps,” he said.
Addressing the issue of political funding, he said, India has to bring about change in two things. The first is to make political funding transparent as the influence of money will strengthen forces which are beyond legal framework like terrorism. The second is to question the role of Election Commission to see if it is equipped to control and monitor the entire electoral process.
He also spoke about the role of technology and said since there has been a lot of advancement in the field, there is a need to progressively evaluate the time spent on campaigning and reduce it in the coming years. “This will also bring down the total money spent on elections,” he opined. He added that there needs to be a balance between transparency and anonymity.
Former Chief Election Commissioner V.S.Sampath speaking on the topic said, “Electoral reforms are the most debated but little is done in terms of action.”
Elaborating further, he said, “The legal framework governing the political parties is a very lose structure. The Election Commision can register a political party but cannot deregister it. Not even one-fourth of the registered parties have contested an election and this often becomes a medium for money laundering.”
He also pointed to another anomaly which is often taken advantage of by the political parties. “Money incurred by political parties on account of star campaigners will not be counted as expenditure of the candidate,” he said. As a result, political parties use this provision to conceal the misuse of funds.
The others ways that hinder bringing about transparency in political funding according to the former CEC are the ceiling imposed donations and electoral bonds. Any donation of Rs20,000 or more should be accompanied by source which has to be then submitted to the EC to get tax rebate. To avoid the disclosure of the source, political parties show smaller donations. Again, when it comes to corporate funding, the proposed electoral bond allows for the contributor to remain anonymous which will affect transparency.
Sampath brought to notice the guidelines issues by EC as a possible solution to address the opaqueness in political funding. EC had put forth the proposal that except for bucket collection, there should be a receipt for all contributors. Political parties should disclose all the money collected within a reasonable time and deposit it in the Bank to bring transparency in the system.
Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan, Founder, Loksatta Party put forth his views on political funding. Acknowledging that there is a need for honest unhurried debate, he said in politics, “nothing is more important than money power.”
He pointed to the provision introduced by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1974 which exempted the expenditure incurred by the friend of the candidate from coming under the ceiling to prove his point. This provision was later repealed in 2003 by the NDA government.
However, he endorsed the tax exemption granted to political parties in India as he is of the belief that “politics is a noble endeavour”. Alongside this, he called for a legitimate funding mechanism to be put in place.
He urged the people to be realistic about reforms. “In an all pervasive culture of black money, suddenly changing to donations by cheque is not possible. Also the need for anonymity of the donor becomes important in light of increasing cases of harassment,” he said.
Offering a solution, he said strict ceilings will help the citizens know if the parties’ decisions are being influenced. Also, he pointed to the existing provision which allows EC to equitably allocate time for all parties to air their campaigns on television. But unfortunately, this provision which will bring down 80% of the campaign expenditure has not yet been used. He also spoke in favour of conducting simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies.
“The problem in India is far more complex. According to an estimate by the EC in 11 years, political parties in India collected Rs 11,300 crore which accounts for only 5% of the actual amount that was spent by all parties. This shows that realities have been ignored and that real challenge is at the state governance level and not at the national level,” he said. s
Making an insightful observation, he said, “Law is not a solution. The votes have no direct personal consequence for the poor. There is a need to convert politics into money. Unless, we change the dynamic, unless people don’t learn to value vote, the illegitimate funding can never be stopped,” he said.
The discussion on 'Transparency in Political Funding' was organised by Bharat Niti, a policy advocacy organisation based in New Delhi.