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Electoral Bonds, Kejriwal’s Arrest, Congress Accounts: The Funding of Elections and the Role of Civil Society


Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest in the alleged liquor policy scam has drawn flak not just from the INDI Alliance leders but also the international community. The electoral bonds case has once again highlghted the issue of electoral funding in India. In the last few years, the correlation between the amount of economic resources at disposal and the electoral success is deepening. Anti-corruption laws must be applied on all without prejudice. Selective application of anti-corruption laws like Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 or PMLA, 2002 jeopardizes the ‘vibrancy’ of democratic politics in favour of those in power.

Ever since the announcement of the election dates by the Chief Election Commissioner, the Indian electoral space has picked up the heat. Three incidents have primarily been the talk of the town for the past two weeks or so. The first has been the disclosure of the electoral bonds data based on the Supreme Court’s orders. It has been welcomed by the whole civil society and has sent ripples across both the political and the corporate circles. The alleged freezing of bank accounts of the Indian National Congress, the principal opposition party of India, has been the second major issue. If this is true, it is a real cause of concern not just for the opposition (which has united under the umbrella of ‘INDI Alliance’) but also for the legitimacy of India’s electoral democracy at large. The last and the most consequential of all, however, has been the unprecedented arrest of a sitting Chief Minister – Mr. Arvind Kejriwal. His arrest in the middle of the night by the Enforcement Directorate for an alleged liquor policy scam has drawn sharp reactions from all the senior leaders of INDI Alliance and has even caught the attention of the international community. The United States has indicated its concerns over such developments and the United Nations has “hoped that rights of all remain protected in India”.

Electoral funding: Growing correlation with winnability

The one common thread that holds together these seemingly disparate events is the thread of electoral funding. There is no denying the fact that politics indeed needs resources to operate. In fact, Kautilya clearly highlights this fact in his maxim ‘Kosh moolo dandah’ (treasury lies at the root of administration and politics). In the last few years, the correlation between the amount of economic resources at disposal and electoral success has been deepening. This trend has been paced up especially, after the corporatization of election campaigns began. The rise of political consultancy firms has transformed the ‘service through politics’ into a ‘business of politics’. More money means hiring better election strategists, more advertisements, increased mobility of star campaigners through expensive modes of transport, higher payouts to its cadres for mobilizing ‘crowd’ in rallies etc. Thus, there is no doubt that the richest party in India, the BJP, is also the most successful one in the electoral space.

Without enough financial resources, a party cannot survive in India’s highly competitive political space. And without enough parties, our democracy will be endangered. Thus, even the allegations of freezing the bank accounts of India’s largest opposition party should ring alarm bells in civil society.

Further, the amount of financial resources garnered by parties in today’s era ranges in the order of thousands of crore (for reference, the BJP received nearly Rs. 6,000 crores from electoral bonds since 2019, and the Trinamool Congress received to the tune of nearly Rs. 1,500 crores). Such huge amounts are made possible largely due to hefty corporate contributions to the parties of their choice. And no corporate house, which is accountable to its shareholders for profit maximization, can donate crores of rupees to a political party without any benefit in return. This makes corruption, including quid pro quo, a natural outcome of the structural flaws of India’s electoral politics. Andy Mukherjee, a Bloomberg columnist, argues that the electoral bonds disclosure reveals the breadth and depth of ‘rot’ in India’s political donations space. All major parties, including those ruling in states, are involved in clandestine methods to accumulate resources.

Also Read: Does High Cost of Electioneering Foster Corruption?

‘Due process of law’: A crusade against corruption or democracy?

In fact, in the present structure of Indian politics, it would be naïve to believe that any recognized political party today is surviving purely on clean money. Thus, although ironical, the very ‘vibrancy’ of Indian democratic politics is possible largely due to such corrupt practices. A corollary of this argument implies that anti-corruption laws must be applied against all without prejudice. Selective application of anti-corruption laws like the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 or PMLA 2002 jeopardizes the ‘vibrancy’ of democratic politics in favour of those in power. Perhaps, the level playing field is lost in the true sense of the term, despite a comprehensive Model Code of Conduct (MCC) in place. Former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa argues that the misuse of the authority of the state agencies in the garb of ‘due process of law’ was not, perhaps, conceived while MCC was being formulated.

An Indian Express study reveals that 95% of the cases involving politicians which have been pursued by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) cases are targeted against the opposition leaders. Thus, even though corruption (in any form) has become an unsaid norm across all parties, the brunt of anti-corruption laws is faced by those outside of power. Another investigative report by Indian Express highlights that 25 politicians facing actions from central law enforcement agencies have defected to the BJP since 2014 and 23 of them have been practically saved from the onslaught of such actions, either by complete closure or by stalling the cases against them.

It is not the application of anti-corruption laws on political leaders, per se, that is the problem. Rather, it is the application and differential pacing of such measures against a selected few that becomes a cause of concern for any democracy. The leaders in countries, like China, have used this playbook of ‘selective and differential treatment’ and a ‘war against corruption’ to eliminate their opponents in graft charges. One benefit of this approach for Xi Jinping is the lack of flak against such measures by civil society because weeding out corruption is always viewed as a healthy move in any country.

Corruption, however, is in the very nature of administration, just as it is the nature of fish to drink water while swimming. This is what Kautilya noted in his Arthashastra. Corruption has been omnipresent across space and time, be it in the Athenian democracy of the 5th Century BCE, the Roman empire of the 1st Century CE, the Spanish monarchy of the 15th Century CE or the Mughal autocracy of the 17th Century CE. What is not omnpresent is, however, democracy. Using the omnipresent ‘corruption’ as a tool to stifle the hard-earned political democracy is not a healthy sign for any democracy.

The role of civil society

A beautiful quote inscribes the entrance of the North Block in New Delhi. It reads: “Liberty will not descend to a people. A people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.

The implication is the role of civil society is building and sustaining democracy. What the Indian national movement, in general, and Mahatma Gandhi, in particular, did was to awaken the civil society in favour of ‘Swaraj’ – a concept even more substantive and democratic than the Western notion of ‘liberty’. Attaining independence and sustaining India as a democracy was just the by-product of this popular awakening. Even the brutal onslaught of Ms. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency on Indian democracy could not defeat the resolve of civil society. The appeal of freedom and democracy must, thus, continue to capture the imagination of Indian civil society to ensure the resilience of Indian democracy.

However, ever since the 1990s, Indian society has been undergoing a sea change. Consumerism has become the growth engine of Indian economy. This has transformed the very morality of Indian society. Hedonism and individualism are on the rise. This has pushed community living, the heartbeat of Indian democracy, to the back burner. The urge for economic satiation has overpowered the urges for political and social freedom. Mindless consumption and wealth accumulation are increasingly being prioritised over freedom of speech. Many call it ‘pragmatism’.

What we are witnessing in India today is a Faustian bargain of political freedom by the electors in favour of economic development. Thus, we often find contrasting positions of India in economic and democratic indices. While it is 5th largest economy and the 3rd largest startup ecosystem along with moving up the charts in the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index, it is also the country with one of the lowest rankings in the Press Freedom Index and has been downgraded to the status of “electoral autocracy” by the V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report.

Such is the case with not just India, but globally. Larry Diamond calls the present era as the era of ‘democratic slump‘. Similarly, in Fareed Zakaria’s worldview, we are witnessing a rise of ‘illiberal democracies‘ across the globe. The leaders of such a system secure economic growth and populist measures but at the cost of political freedom.

Several philosophers have, however, warned against such a phenomenon. Hannah Arendt, for example, believed that ‘man is zoon politikon’. Bargaining this innate human nature for short-term and temporary materialistic gains leads to totalitarianism. For her, political deliberation in the public sphere is the highest of all human actions. Aristotle, too, in his book “Politics”, has argued that politics is the highest virtue needed to achieve ‘Eudaimonia’, i.e. the true potentiality of any human being.

The bargain of political freedom in favour of economic growth is, thus, fraught with the dangers of irreversible changes in the Indian polity. The position taken by India Inc. against the complete disclosure of electoral bond details in the Supreme Court is an example of how this Faustian bargain can turn democratic principles like transparency on their heads in the name of ‘ease of doing business’.

Such a tendency to trade liberty for growth must be nipped in the bud before it captures the imagination of Indian civil society and reverses what the Indian national movement had achieved, i.e., the political awakening in favour of democracy. Several developments ever since the election dates announcement are not positive for Indian democracy. Watchdogs must remember the North Block entrance quote and stem these red flags before they start flying high with impunity.

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About the author

Prateek Yadav is a student of Political Science and writes on contemporary political issues.


Prateek Yadav

Prateek Yadav is a student of Political Science and writes on contemporary political issues.

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