For my regular reader: This is a serious post. But its something I’m passionate about, so bear with me.
On 9th April 2011, veteran activist Anna Hazare got the Government to issue a gazette notification constituting a 10 member joint committee of ministers and civil society activists including Hazare himself to draft an effective Jan Lokpal Bill.
This is a small victory in an uphill battle. The truth is that corruption today is endemic. Despite our increasing income, education levels and consumption pattern, corruption continues to rise. Why? Because its the method of providing political funds-money to carry out a political party’s daily activities and increasingly expensive election campaigns. And of course, of enriching quite a few individual’s bedroom safe-boxes on the way. In a rare candid confession in the Independent, a senior NCP leader said that an elected official is expected to send Rs 40-50 crore a year to headquarters. After all, the Congress reportedly spent around Rs 2000 crores in the last general election.
Where does such a huge corpus come from? Even extremely rich or highly paid individuals would not be able to muster such funds and in our populist state our politicians are neither.
While laws with teeth such as the Jan Lokpal Bill strive to root out corruption, the fact is that unless politicians find other sources of revenue, they will find ways to go around these laws as well. Modern politics needs money, but the common man should not pay for it to get his work done.
Election/political funding is the reason behind many developed countries’ corruption woes- biggest case in point being, of course, the USA. But the moot point of difference between ours and US corruption is that in their case political funding is mostly from corporate sources which means that the local level of corruption is low. Of course, their system is rife with discrepancies as well. Philip Morris International-a tobacco company, was one of the largest contributors in the last general election, no doubt endangering the safe passage of several anti-tobaccos laws. Large scale contributions from Chinese companies were also reportedly the reason why Chinese stealing of US nuclear weapon secrets was kept under wraps for so long. Also, just like in India, disclosures of sources are incomplete and no one can estimate the vested interests involved.
Having said that, corporate funding maybe the lesser evil here. Atleast in the US, I dont have to bribe a police officer to register a report, or the Government hospital to issue a death certificate, or the passport official to get a passport.
In India many corporates complain about political blackmail. Yet, corporate funding does not seem to be the primary source of political funds. This maybe due to two reasons. Due to negative connatations attached to what many consider an ‘open bribe’, political parties refrain from accepting corporate funds , thus making transparency further difficult. Mamta Banerjee created media newslets by openly refusing a cheque of Rs 27 lakh given by TATA while no doubt shoring up crores sourced from the hapless taxpayer inside. Another reason maybe a simple philosophy of ‘why fix it if it aint broken?’ When local level corruption has been so succesful in filling up political coffers for ages, why shake up the system now? This is where reforms such as the Jan Lokpal bill can go a long way. Strict justice and a corresponding introduction of a merit and higher pay system can disincentivise officials from local bribes, particularly when the political pressure to get money eases.
Another system of political funding, atleast for election funding is the route of public finance, often touted by the Left. Pains me to say that this time, they seem to be right. There are many ways to do public funding- from direct payments per vote achieved or concessions in media or a flat tax rate. Many countries in the west such as Germany and Sweden and even some transitional democracies in Africa pratice it. States such as Arizona in the US have also adopted this system under the concept of ‘clean elections’. While critics argue that the system negates the freedom of speech and public representation, pros point out that in many cases money should be not the differentiator for a fair election. And to no surprise, states with public funding do report lower levels of corruption.
Whether we go the public funding or corporate funding way, no system is free of problems. But atleast by opening up the sources for political funds, the pressure on local officials to garner a sum from their constituencies shall ease. In the absence of the pressure to ‘make’ money, we may actually get officials who want to get some work done.