So the 2019 election has come to a close and the results are before you. According to the Association of Democratic Rights (ADR), the graph of our parliamentarians with criminal backgrounds is steadily increasing: 2004 had 24%, 2009 had 33%, 2014 had 34% and - hold your breath - 2019 has a massive 43% of the 539 winning candidates with criminal cases pending against them.
Former Election Commissioner S.Y Quraishi rightly states that “half our law-makers are law-breakers!”
The ADR report also states that 29% members of the new Lok Sabha have admitted to having cases of serious crimes against them, such as murder, rape or attempt to murder. And 29% of MPs are facing cases related to hate speech.
Does this fantastic nexus between money, crime and elections augur well for democracy?
According to a recently released report by the Centre of Media Studies, Poll Expenditure -the 2019 Election, this election was the most expensive ever and an estimated of over Rs 60,000 crore was spent. The report is based on secondary information, field studies and analysis. But at this point, we need not quibble over the methodology and exact amounts; the fact is, this expenditure is astronomical and most of it is unaccounted for.
Bhaskara Rao the founder of CMS, indicated that “in 2005 and 2007, CMS brought out the ‘note for vote’ phenomena were not isolated, but across states. Since then it has been spreading further and is on the increase. The scale of 2019 should scare us of the next poll.”
The electoral bonds initiated by the government are opaque. We do not know the source and the Supreme Court has asked the sources to be submitted in a sealed envelope to the Election Commission by May 30. But since these funds remain anonymous to the voter, this is clearly leading to a case of crony capitalism, where the donor is amply rewarded for his support. There should be full disclosure before the time of going to vote.
The ADR had asked for a stay on electoral bonds as “it has opened the flood gates to unlimited corporate donations as well as foreign companies.…” The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) received almost 95% of the electoral bonds.
Quraishi made an astonishing disclosure when he said, “I went to the AAP website and found that they too were not disclosing their donors, despite their having promised to do so in the last elections. Then I called the AAP party candidate, Raghav Chadha, who said, “Every single donor had been raided or harassed and the party had been compelled to discontinue this”.
Does this augur well for democracy?
What we need is a National Electoral Fund where every single donation by individuals and corporates is declared. This is being done in 70% of the European countries. In fact, Quraishi argued for state funding of elections, where every candidate and political party gets a stipulated amount based on the number of votes polled in the last elections.
Donations to political parties are opaque as well. Quraishi said: “The auditors just rubber-stamp anything given to them!” He revealed that the earlier EC had met the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and had asked them if they would recommend a group of eminent chartered accountants whose name would be up on the website. In other words, as of now, audited accounts of political parties are extremely dodgy.
The Supreme Court in September 2018 had ordered that candidates should publicly declare their criminal background, if any, by advertising in newspapers and channels in bold letters, thrice after filing their nomination. Well, for obvious reasons, only a few candidates complied!
I do respect the law that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, however, with due respect, in the case of heinous crimes such as murder, rape and terror - when charges have been framed - surely the candidate should be debarred from seeking public office till such time as the case is cleared.
Now we have the sad spectacle of a terror accused in the Malegaon case who got a BJP ticket and has now won the Lok Sabha election and is a Member of the Parliament – the most august forum of our nation. The court has recently directed that Pragya Singh Thakur will have to present herself personally for the case and she cannot be exempted from a personal appearance.
There is another disturbing trend; the media is supposed to play a fearless watchdog role, but in this election, there were a plethora of television channels who were openly flouting norms of objectivity. Who owns these channels? In most cases they are big business houses and, in some cases, foreign investor. Surely foreign money towards electoral bonds and media houses will overturn the level-playing pitch?
The EC is only looking into violations when the model poll conduct code is announced, but what about the entire process of funding and putting up a candidate during the five-year period. If a potential candidate puts up a hoarding, the EC has no powers to make inquiries and take action. Just making a few announcements at the time of the model code announcement is placing a fig leaf before the massive build–up of corruption.
A billion people go to vote because so much is at stake; they look to their elected parliamentarians to represent their interests – cleanly, fairly and fearlessly - but if we do not clean up the entire process we are heading for a sham democracy, where we go through a procedure but the essence of democracy is lacking.
However, no political party is interested in cleaning up their act. It was both ironical and disturbing that despite being invited to the release of the CMS report, not a single representative from the BJP, Congress, Communist Party of India or for that matter any political party showed up!
We will have to work towards developing a groundswell of public opinion for the roots of democracy. This includes strengthening the Right to Information Act and not diluting it and respecting the views of salient organisations, such as ADR, which are doing salutary work.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated in his inaugural speech, “from now on, now there are only two castes: those who are poor and those who wish to do something for the poor.” I heartily agree with the first part of the statement. However, I would like to clarify, there is now only the political class and those who are outside of it.
The people of India, after a century-long freedom struggle to dispel the British Raj, do not wish to have a new Raj in place. What they seek is an authentic representation of their aspirations and rights. That voice has to be clean and fearless, like a wave of the ocean, representing a billion of humanity.
Surely, we owe them better?
The writer is an award-winning author and film-director. The views are personal.