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The crucial Karnataka Assembly elections have produced a hung Assembly with the Bharatiya Janata Party emerging as the single largest party with 104 seats, while the Congress could only manage 78. In line with the predictions of most opinion polls, Janata Dal (Secular) has got 37 seats and is the key to forming the next government in the state.
While the latest electoral success reaffirms the strength of the BJP’s election-fighting machinery and boosts its chances in 2019, the Karnataka elections were always of a lot more consequence for the Congress. If it fails to form a government in alliance with the JD(S) in Karnataka in the coming days, the grand old party will be left with governing just two states — Punjab and Puducherry.
This is bound to have major consequences for the party in 2019 and beyond. The Congress has already staked claim to forming the government with the support of JD(S) leaders HD Deve Gowda and HD Kumaraswamy. But the BJP is hopeful the governor will invite, not the post-poll alliance, but the single largest party — a principle that was not followed after the Assembly elections in Goa or Manipur.
Allegations of money power and horse-trading are going to abound as either party tries to form the government. The truth is money power has not just dominated these elections, it has emerged as the ultimate winner. Ground reports suggest that the BJP managed to surge ahead of the Congress in the last few weeks of the campaign. The charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi coupled with aggressive advertising undeniably played a role, but the key to success in Karnataka lies in a topic that politicians and political pundits seldom touch upon. The lesson that should be drawn from the Karnataka elections is about the influence of money in Indian politics and how it is bound to ruin the country’s democracy in the days to come.
By May 10, 2018, the Income Tax Department and Police in Karnataka had seized liquor, cash, gold and silver worth over Rs 170 crore.
While there is no ceiling on the amount of money a party can spend on elections, each candidate is allowed to spend a maximum of Rs 28 lakh, according to the Election Commission. For a state with 224 Assembly constituencies, this would mean that all candidates combined could legally spend a total of Rs 62.72 crore. And yet the police seized goods and cash worth almost three times the total permissible limit.
What should worry and surprise the citizens of India is that no party seems to be too bothered about such a huge amount being confiscated by the police. That’s because Rs 170 crore likely represents a small fraction of the actual amount spent on these elections. Election consultants working on the ground estimate the true expenditure on the Karnataka Assembly Elections to be upwards of Rs 5,600 crore.
The lesson that should be drawn from this is that elections are expensive in India and that the Election Commission is failing to prevent parties and individuals from enticing voters with bribes of liquor and cash. The quantum of money spent by political parties in elections has gotten so huge over the past few years that there is just no way for a party to remain honest while still managing to win elections.
Even if the trend of bribing voters could be prevented, the fact that parties can spend an unlimited amount on advertising and branding is worrying in a democracy because it gives a huge advantage to the party that has more money than the others.
In a world where conversations are shaped by social media, a party willing to spend huge sums of money on Facebook advertising and WhatsApp forwards can hire experts to deliver targeted messages to voters and ensure that the narrative is shaped to help its own cause. Outspending your opponent by an order of magnitude means that your messages reach a lot more people than the message of your opponent, and, in a playing field as skewed as that, it hardly matters what the messages are.
The prevalence of Fake News adds another level of complexity to the mix. It allows the narrative to be shaped using information that isn’t even true. Even when a piece of news is busted as fake and a lot of people share the correction, without the money to propel this fact, it is unlikely to reach even a small fraction of the number of people who have come to accept the initial fake news as fact.
During every election cycle, the Election Commission and police seize crores of cash and liquor from poll-bound states. But there is never any news about anyone getting booked transporting and distributing such bribes.
The drivers and handlers who get arrested are often let out on bail as soon as the elections get over and no one bothers to pursue these cases once the results are in.
A corrupt party that spends more during elections has a higher likelihood of winning than an honest party contesting on a limited budget. Immediate steps must be taken by the Election Commission to stop this influence of money from destroying our democracy. Laws need to be enacted to ensure swift punishment for those caught trying to bribe voters with liquor and cash.
The Election Commission needs to enact a limit on the amount of money that political parties can spend on elections and transparency must be ensured in the funding of political parties. Innovative means to monitor the expenses of political parties need to be formulated because the current methods are proving to be extremely ineffective.
While we debate which party is more corrupt and who spent more on the elections, we must remember that the current democratic system we have in place rewards corruption and ensures that honest parties are unlikely to win.
A swathe of electoral reforms is required before one can expect India to be corruption free.