R-Day Ruminations-I: Crime & Politics

Two stories in today’s Times of India need some kind of response.

The first one is about Sonia Gandhi voicing her desire (read original story here) to keep criminals out of politics. She said this at a function to celebrate the diamond jubilee of the Election Commission. At the same event, prime minister Manmohan Singh rued the fact that the best minds don’t want to join politics because of the unruly elements who populate this space. Both – including many others at the celebrations — have a point and it is interesting to see how they translate this thought into action.

But, just banning criminals might not cleanse the system of its venality. The rot begins with the way the profession is financed. With little or no accountability, most political parties depend on business for their financing. And, a large part of this is in cash. An accountant recently told me that even new generation entrepreneurs who wanted to run transparent and well-governed businesses – especially in manufacturing — couldn’t help dipping into the shadowy cash economy once in a while to keep greedy politicians and bureaucrats at bay. Pay-offs are hard-wired into the system of approvals, clearances and licences; denial only begets reprisal and redressal mechanisms are way too effete to deliver timely and meaningful justice.

It all starts here. Untrammelled access to such large pools of cash naturally draws in all kinds. One consequence is the large percentage of political sons and daughters inheriting their parents’ mantle. When large sums of money – held through a web of shell companies in India and abroad – are at stake, most politicians are loath to leave this fortune to a political party or to other political (essentially non-family) successors. Merging the political heir and family heir into the same person is a neat arrangement. Here’s another pointer: nobody seems to bat an eyelid when politicians disclose large increases in their wealth despite not having any disclosed sources of income. One politician even ingeniously explained it as gifts from fans!

If they are indeed serious about ridding politics of its goonda elements, then Sonia Gandhi – and hopefully Rahul Gandhi – will have to bring the broom to campaign finance first. The Election Commission has been trying to introduce a semblance of accountability to campaign finance by putting a ceiling on how much each candidate can spend on his or her election campaign. But, this ceiling is observed more in breach for two reasons – one, the candidate’s campaign bills are mostly picked up by someone else and, two, because nobody monitors how much each political party spends at a broader, national level.

The problem that then arises is this: campaign financing doesn’t stop once the election results are announced because election funding is inextricably linked to post-electoral favours in the form of sweetheart deals, land allocation and lopsided government contracts, which then provides a platform for additional future funding. Perhaps, the EC should also play a role in reducing the size of the government and its capacity to influence business investment decisions. I know this is asking the EC to go way beyond its constitutional remit. Plus, one can’t overlook the additional danger of a megalomaniac EC wreaking havoc. But, some institutional mechanism can be devised in conjunction with other constitutional offices (such as the Comptroller and Auditor General of India) that works to reduce the multiple government approvals – both at the Centre and the states — that force businesses to generate unaccounted cash.

Many authors and historians have written that the politics of Sixties and Seventies marked the end of numerous Indian institutions. I hope we are able to witness the rebuilding of some of them in this new decade. That’s also a necessary and sufficient condition to end criminalisation of politics.

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