It is that time again. Animated discussions are taking place on streets, across drawing rooms, clubs, cafes et all. The topic is the same. Who will win the ensuing elections? More importantly, whom should we vote for.
Many of those disgusted with our system express their displeasure by opting for none of the above (NOTA). Those who are still more disgruntled or disenchanted refuse to vote at all. Yet time and again, are conscience is pricked: you are being irresponsible, do your bit, be the change that you want to see and so on.
The deep awakening of our soul propels us into detailed analysis: who is likely to make India a 10 trillion economy by 20XX, which party is promising decent jobs for our burgeoning youth, who is willing to take care of the farmers, who will ensure safety and empowerment of women. The list goes on and on. Finally, our mind is made up. On the D-day we join scores of others in serpentine queues, cast our vote and return home satisfied that we have done all that we could to make India a better country.
Time to pause and think. Does our vote really count?
Of course, it does; but only numerically.
But not in intent and spirit? Simply because elections are not fought with clean money, ideologies are sacrificed at the altar of “must win” and lure of plump posts, horse trading is rampant.
The developments in Karnataka over last several months is just one such example.
Busloads of legislators were ferried away and kept in captivity on more than one occassion lest they were poached. Hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ money was wasted, governance went into limbo. Yet no one in the government bothered. Each party claimed that the other party was trying to buy its legislators with bags full of money.
The root cause of the problem is black money. Electoral bonds, introduced in 2017, were supposed to be a game changer. In reality, it is a classic example of the cure being worse than the disease. The Election Commission had called it a retrograde step since any donation received by a political party through electoral bonds were taken out of the ambit of reporting under the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Transparency was given a quite burial.
The biggest flaw of this instrument is what its votaries still perceive to be its biggest strength; that electoral bonds provides for complete white money donation. Just because it is routed through the banks is no guarantee that the money used is all kosher. If it were so, the Augusta Westland scam would have never happened. More than Rs350 crore allegedly paid as bribes was routed thru banks with the help of complex corporate structures.
And not to forget the Zakir Naik case whose interests are considered to be inimical to the country’s interest. Did he not get more than Rs60 crore from more several countries over a period of three-four years. All this dirty money infiltrated our impregnable banking systems and no one was wiser.
Crores of bank accounts were opened in a day thru JanDhan scheme. The know-your-customer (KYC) norms scrupulously followed otherwise were given a go by for the majority who were illiterates. While the social objective is laudable, the threat to the banking system with such initiatives, without a strong system of check and balances cannot be overlooked.
It is as dangerous as handing a loaded gun to a child to play with. It is common knowledge how many of these accounts were misused during demonetisation. Earlier, there was a chance of getting caught every time black money changed hands. But once it permeates the banking system, it is rid of all sins once for all and can be used multiple times for nefarious activities; directly or indirectly.
Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi, Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd (IL&FS) and scores of others have demonstrated how easy it is to game the banking system. Loans can be raised even for non-existent or non-viable projects, funds raised can be diverted easily and some of them may even find their way to political parties via electoral bonds to ensure that the supposed long arm of kanoon never reaches them.
State Bank of India (SBI) has reportedly sold electoral bonds worth Rs1,716 crore in January and March this year as against Rs1,056 crore of bonds sold in six months in 2018. Surprisingly the government, which came to power on the plank of good governance is now justifying the anonymity that electoral bonds provide.
In the ongoing hearings before the Supreme Court, the attorney general has claimed that disclosures would place industrialists and corporates who wish to see a particular party in power at risk of being targeted for backing the “wrong horse”. In other words, giving unfair advantage and bending the rules for the donors is now being openly acknowledged.
While introduction of electoral bonds could not escape attention, many back room maneuvers went unnoticed. Earlier, Section 182 of the Companies Act, 2013 limited political donations in a financial year to 7.5% of average net profits for the last three years. However this limit was completely withdrawn vide amendment made by Section 154 of the Finance Act, 2017. Effectively, even loss making companies can now make political donations!
The above two examples exemplify how futile our votes are despite our best intentions. Is the situation completely irreversible? The optimist in me refuses to believe so. Two simple changes can still bring the best out of even these ill-conceived legislations.
First and foremost; it is important to strike at the root of the problem. Holding the country to ransom by party hopping legislators must stop. Laws should be amended so that no member of legislative assembly (MLA) or the Parliament (MP) can jump the ship more than once in a span of two years. Even if he does, his presence will not count for the strength of the party, which he joins. They will however be entitled to all the perks that they would otherwise enjoy. This will ensure stability. Political parties will be able to take long term view. Once this is done, exchange of money bags should reduce to a large extent. This suggestion should be immensely acceptable to our white khadi clad netas who profess to work only for the welfare of the people, claim to lead a spartan life and wear nationalism on their sleeve,
Secondly, political donations by companies must necessarily be approved by the shareholders, who must be provided full details of the proposed donation, amount to be donated to each of them, justification for donation etc. Each company’s website must also disclose these details for all the years since its inception. This will help to resurrect transparency.
The big question is whether these suggestions will fructify. Most unlikely is my hunch. Our helplessness and despondency is perhaps well captured in an old Hindi film song: “Rasme ulfat ko nibhayein kaaise…..har taraf aag hai daman ko bachaein kaaise”…..and if I may add a dash of my own…….”Is desh me clean politics laayein, toh laayein kaaise”.