How to check money in politics

The media and public have deplored the buying and selling of legislators to influence voting in the motion of confidence in Parliament. They have also deplored the spectacle of convicted criminal MPs being released from jail to vote. This has tarnished the otherwise impressive victory of the Manmohan Singh government.

Cynics will say we have known for decades that ever-larger sums of money change hands in politics, which now resembles a profitable business rather than public service. So, say the cynics, why act surprised if money power is used when the very life of a government is at stake? Ten opposition MPs voted for the government and ten Samajwadi MPs voted against. An editorial in The Economic Times interpreted this as 10 people investing in Manmohan at spot rates and ten buying Mayawati futures.

This episode is just one more in a long line of dismal scams involving the misuse of money in politics. It is not an aberration. Rather, our political standards have fallen steadily for decades, since our institutional framework offers perverse incentives that reward those who treat politics as commerce. Instead of occasional CBI inquiries, which seem to achieve nothing, we need radical institutional changes to make money less attractive and effective in politics.

Let me start with a short list of three changes. First, let us have fixed terms of five years for all central and state governments and legislators. Second, after every election, let legislators elect a leader who becomes prime/chief minister for a full term. Third, enact a new law providing that all cases against elected legislators must be heard on a day-to-day basis, and disposed of within one year.

The spending of enormous sums in politics is not an Indian invention. In the US, candidates in presidential elections spend hundreds of billions of dollars. Almost every senator is a millionaire. Lobbyists ply US legislators with all sorts of perks, and sometimes cash. But most of this is transparent and legal. And we do not find the Republican Party bribing Democrats to vote their way, or vice versa.

In India, we have spending limits on elections that are ignored by all. We have laws barring the participation of criminals in elections, which are ineffective since the judiciary and police seem incapable of convicting anybody important beyond all appeals. Indeed, many criminals have joined politics to better sabotage cases they face. In the absence of a police-judicial system that works, all political parties have welcomed musclemen and moneybags who can influence outcomes through violence and bribery.

We have one election or another every few months. So there is a constant demand for ever-more funds for fighting elections. Governments fail to last a full term for various reasons — they may be toppled, may be ousted by President’s rule, or may voluntarily opt for early elections. So, elections no longer take place at one time, but are spread through virtually every year. This leads not only to constant money-raising, but to policy paralysis. Politicians are reluctant to try anything radical when elections are in the offing. And today, one election or another is always in the offing.

We now live in a highly fractured polity of shifting coalitions, where governments are fearful of being toppled by the exit of a few small parties. Moreover, many parties suffer from factional strains, so the enemies within can be bigger topplers than those outside. In such a milieu, governments are unable to focus on governance and policy, and instead focus on survival — and on making money while they survive.

How do we remedy the situation? One obvious way is to have fixed terms for governments. If the PM and CMs have fixed terms, they cannot be toppled, and that will end the worst skulduggery in Indian politics. Once a government is secure for a full term, it can focus on promoting the public interest rather than the private interest of potential topplers. Parties could still exit and enter coalitions on various issues, and the PM/CM will still have to negotiate with legislators to get approval for some of his legislation (something US Presidents know well). So a fixed term does not mean dictatorial powers.

The US has fixed four-year terms for Presidents and state governors, who are directly elected by the electorate. There is much resistance in India to a presidential system. Most people prefer a prime ministerial system. So, let us convert our prime ministerial system into a fixed-term one. Immediately after an election, the legislature should elect a leader and deputy leader for a full five-year term. Once elected, no change should be possible save through death, in which case the deputy will succeed. Many variations on this theme are possible. This will end the current situation, where one state or another goes to the polls every few months. So, party treasurers will no longer constantly hunt for fresh funds.

A democracy is not well served by holding elections only once in five years: it needs some elections in between to signal changes in the public mood. So perhaps half the states can go to the polls along with the Centre, and the rest after two and a half years. This will produce two elections seasons, a big one every five years and a small one half-way through. Local elections, to panchayats and municipalities, can also be held in between, providing further signals of the public mood.

Finally, we need a new law that will truly discourage criminals from contesting elections. This should postulate that cases against legislators will be given top seniority in hearing by the courts, will be heard on a day-to-day basis, and be disposed of within one year at most, by shortening and guillotining the legal procedures if necessary to meet the deadline. This will greatly dissuade criminals from contesting elections, since getting elected will hasten their prosecution. Indeed, many criminals in legislatures will, hopefully, resign in order to escape early prosecution. That will certainly transform the quality of politics.


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