If there is a section of society that is ridiculed most in this country it is the political class. We just love to hate them. We despise our politicians for their insatiable appetite for illegitimate wealth. We hate them for carrying political campaigns along religious lines and for engendering communal conflicts. We hold them responsible for lack of basic amenities and infrastructure.
But the anger at the political class is understandable but not justifiable. This is because we often see corruption at an individual level and as unethical behavior of the few, and rarely do we treat corruption at the systemic level. What we, including the media, need to understand is that there are vicious cycles operating which reward bad behavior. It is these vicious cycles, which influence the behaviour of our politicians to a considerable extent.
First, election expenditures are large, unaccounted and mostly illegitimate. For instance, expenditure limit for assembly elections in most major states was Rs 600,000 until recently, when it has been revised to Rs 10 lakh. In reality average expenditure in most states is several multiples of it, sometimes exceeding Rs 10 million. Most of this expenditure is incurred to buy votes, bribe officials and hire musclemen. Such large, unaccounted expenditure can be sustained only if the system is abused to enable multiple returns on investment. This has created a class of political and bureaucratic entrepreneurs who treat public office as big business.
Second, electoral verdicts have ceased to make a difference to people. As incentive for discerning behaviour in voting has disappeared, people started maximizing their short-term returns. As a result, money and liquor are accepted habitually by many voters. This pattern of behaviour only converted politics and elections into big business and the vicious cycle of corruption is further strengthened.
Third, this situation bred a class of political entrepreneurs who established fiefdoms. In most constituencies, money power, caste clout, bureaucratic links, and political contacts came together perpetuating politics of fiefdoms. Entry into electoral politics is restricted in real terms, as people who cannot muster these forces have little chance of getting elected. Absence of internal democratic norms in parties and the consequent oligarchic control has denied a possibility of rejuvenation of political process through establishment of a virtuous cycle.
Fourth, in a centralized governance system, even if the vote is wisely used by people, the administrative machinery has no capacity to deliver public services of high quality or low cost. Such a climate which cannot ensure better services or good governance breeds competitive populism to gain electoral advantage. Such populist politics have led to serious fiscal imbalances.
Fifth, fiscal health can be restored only by higher taxes, or reduced subsidies or wages. The total tax revenues of the union and states are of the order of only 15 percent of GDP. Higher taxation is resisted in the face of ubiquitous corruption and poor quality services. Desubsidization is always painful for the poor who do not see alternative benefits accruing from the money saved by withdrawal of subsidies. A vast bureaucracy under centralized control can neither be held to account, nor is wage reduction a realistic option.
Elected governments are helpless to change this perilous situation. As the survival of the government depends on the support of legislators, their demands have to be met. The legislator has thus become the disguised, unaccountable executive controlling all facets of government functioning. The local legislator and the bureaucrats have a vested interest in denying local governments any say in real decision making. The vicious cycle of corruption and centralized, unaccountable governance is thus perpetuated.
It is because of the failure to appreciate these complex linkages, vicious cycles and the systemic crisis within our political system that we tend blame politicians for all the ills. As a consequence, we fail to make correct assessment of actual reform efforts and fail to support politicians in their efforts that may make a difference to the large sections of the public.
Similarly, a recent vital piece of legislation relating to political funding went largely unnoticed in media and political circles. The Election and Other Related Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2003 (Bill No. 18 of 2003) was approved by both Houses of Parliament in August 2003, and became law in September with the assent of the President. In any other functioning democracy, such a law would have been hailed as a major reform, and dominated public discourse for months. The deafening silence on the subject in India is a sad reflection of the quality of public discourse. The legislation has the following significant features.
1. It removed the loophole in the law1 that stated that the all expenditure incurred or authorised by a political party or by any other individual or body of persons or association was exempted from election expenditure ceiling.
2. The law now provides for full tax exemption to individuals and corporates for all contributions to registered political parties.
3. Perhaps the most far-reaching reform from a long-term perspective is the indirect public funding now available to recognized parties in the form of allocation of equitable share of time on the cable television network and other private or public electronic media, based on past performance.
This law is far-reaching in its consequences. If such a law were enacted in the US, the American political funding crisis would have been resolved. True, our political funding crisis is far more complex, and is closely linked to our electoral system and the politics of fiefdom practiced in most parts of India. Unlike in the US, most of our election expenditure is both illegal (unaccounted and beyond the ceiling limits), and illegitimate (for buying votes, bribing election officials and hiring hoodlums). Not surprisingly, parties and candidates are loath to disclose funding sources and expenditure.
Despite these limitations, this law is a major step forward in cleansing our polity. All in all, this is a great step forward for our troubled democracy. That it received support from all parties is a source of great optimism about the future. Clearly, all major parties are alive to the need to curb corruption, and provide legitimate means of political funding. However the public discourse on this vital piece of legislation has been minimal. Media, civil society and business groups have ignored the efforts that have gone into drafting and the implications of this law.
On the economic front, all political parties have ensured continuity and stability in the reform process in the past few decades. In spite of fragmented verdicts and unstable coalition politics, political parties carried on with new economic policies. Indeed, there have been disagreements on various specificities of the new economic policy but the general thrust of the policies of various political parties at the Union and the state level has been to free the economy from unnecessary state regulation. This amazing political consensus in a fragmented polity deserves greater attention and appreciation from the public.
Whenever we are judging our politicians, it should be remembered that India is struggling to deepen democratic institutions over the past 50 years in a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and a multi-religious society characterized by wide disparities in social and economic spheres. In spite of many factors that are usually considered as not conducive for the successful functioning of democracy, Indian democracy survived for past 57 years and is still going strong. True, there are many aberrations in our democracy, but the consistent efforts to reform the political process have not received sufficient attention.
To vilify politicians for the prevalent state of affairs is a knee-jerk reaction to a complex crisis that our democracy is facing. Moreover it is counterproductive, because in a free society there is no substitute to politics. True politics is a noble endeavour. Politicians perform the two most complex tasks of bridging the gulf between limited resources and unlimited wants, and harmoniously reconciling the conflicting interests of fiercely contending groups in a plural society. The only antidote to venality in politics is more and better politics. Improvement is possible only through serious political engagement and constructive dialogue.
Also: Voting and the public good
The need of the hour is comprehensive electoral and governance reform and they can be ushered in only through collective efforts. In this process politicians are important stakeholders but not the only stakeholders. By holding politicians culpable for everything thats wrong with our society, we are mitigating the possibility of collective action. Collective action, not collective cynicism, is the essence of democracy.