India Buzz News

The playing field is still not level

<p>Arun Jaitley, the former finance minister, unveiled a new method in 2017 for businesses and private citizens to support political parties. An electoral bond might be purchased by anyone from a bank and directed to be sent to their preferred political party. The buyer of the bonds would stay nameless. The political party would simply get the paper and have access to its funds, but it would remain anonymous. The administration said that this would have made it impossible for Netas to trade favors for cash, particularly while they were in authority. Naturally, this presupposes that every Indian political contributor is the same as your secret admirer who gives you presents while keeping their identity a secret (no, that has never happened to me).</p>
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<p>It seems logical that the opposition rejected this line of reasoning. Although the Congress was losing the polls, it secretly kept taking the money, even though it had vowed to abolish electoral bonds if it won the 2019 elections. Not that corporate contributors were queued up in the hundreds to give the CPM money; rather, it was the only party that declined to accept donations via the electoral bond mechanism.</p>
<p>Many dark facts are emerging now that the Election Commission has been ordered by the Supreme Court to disclose the identity of each contributor and that electoral bonds are illegal. For example, a large number of contributors have made gifts exceeding the net value of their businesses. Among the largest contributors are a few companies that the Enforcement Directorate (ED) has raided. Crucially, the notion that electoral alliances are anonymous has been debunked by political parties and contributors acknowledging that they are aware of one another’s identities.</p>
<p>With the BJP having amassed almost as much money via electoral bonds as all other parties put together, opposition parties are free to openly criticize the government. Allegations of government agencies being used to extort corporate houses have been all over social media. This is all very well and good for political rhetoric, but it is not much more than that. This is so because political parties only spend a small portion of their election budget on electoral bonds.</p>
<p>Consider the Lok Sabha elections of 2019. We now know that the BJP redeemed electoral bonds totaling Rs 1,771 crore in advance of the 2019 elections. However, what was the cost of its campaign? The Centre for Media Studies (CMS) estimates that political parties spent between Rs 55,000 and Rs 60,000 crore in 2019. CMS estimates that 45 per cent of this cash was spent by the BJP. This equates to around Rs 25,000–27,000 crore that the BJP alone spent on the 2019 political campaign. That indicates that electoral bonds accounted for barely 7% of the BJP’s whole spending.</p>
<p>Parties redeemed electoral bonds of around Rs 16,500 crore between March 2018, the time the bonds were originally introduced, and January 2024. We have had 36 Assembly elections and one Lok Sabha election throughout this time. It is reasonable to conclude that at least Rs 1.2–1.5 lakh crore have been spent on these 37 elections, taking into account inflation when CMS originally estimated the cost of the 2019 elections (including the most recent Lok Sabha polls). Merely 11–13% of the overall poll expenditures may have been attributed to electoral bonds. That is just one-eighth of the total amount political parties spent on their campaigns.</p>
<p>It is important to note that any expenses that had been made with the 2019 elections in mind, prior to the model code of conduct coming into force, were excluded from the CMS’s cost estimate. The number would have been far larger if they had been included. In actuality, political parties must spend all year long to maintain their local electoral apparatus; they cannot only spend during elections. Even if it’s only to cover the cost of petrol or tea and cookies, all of this requires money.</p>
<p>Of course, there are other “official” ways for political parties to raise money than electoral bonds. Direct contributions and funds provided by electoral trusts are two other possibilities. The BJP received an additional Rs 4,500 crore via these two channels between 2018 and 2023, on top of what it received from electoral bonds. The whole cost, even when added together, would still be insignificant in comparison to the amount the party and its candidates would have spent on the federal and state elections.</p>
<p>Any politician who has run in a significant election will tell you that a much more informal and decentralized mechanism is really used to handle political money. Most of the funding is provided to candidates in an indirect manner via a number of fronts. Ground-level payments are made to nearby power brokers. Front groups fund district level leaders, provide funding to a neta’s favorite project, and provide cash for election-related costs. Examples of these groups include fake NGOs and bankrupt shell corporations. A candidate running for office may be handed a fleet of automobiles by a mid-level local business, and party workers’ meals might be covered by another.</p>
<p>Such funds would inevitably benefit the party in power or a party with the ability to seize power. A fundamental flaw with electoral democracies is that the victor keeps the money, which they may utilize to win other elections. That also has a rationale behind it. Large contributors are also likely to be among a party’s supporters if it has public support. No one can be made to pay political organizations they disagree with in a free society. Strict spending limits are the greatest option for ensuring that all political parties operate on an even playing field.</p>
<p>But even in that case, the game would be unfair. In today’s society, elections are more likely to be won by the party controlling the messaging. This is the point at which corporate ownership of the news media becomes relevant. Corporate sponsorship of political parties would still be prohibited by law, but corporations would still have the power to sway public opinion, control the media, and fabricate consent.</p>

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