Lesson from US: money does not buy elections

Spending vast sums on elections is not an Indian speciality. The US just spent $7 billion in the latest election cycle, up from $5 billion in 2008, equally divided between the presidential and Congressional elections. Yet the outcome suggests that massive election spending is wasted money.

Cynics disagree. They say while Romney got corporate billions, Obama raised just as much through small contributions. This could mean that money matters, but the equality of money on both sides canceled out. However , a closer look suggests that money really does not matter much. Wrestling company tycoon Linda McMahon spent $100 million in two attempts (in 2010 and 2012) to become senator from Connecticut. She lost both times.

Last year, the US Supreme Court decreed that corporations , as groups of people, enjoyed the right of free speech, and could spend unlimited amounts to voice any opinions, bypassing laws limiting contributions to candidates . This opened the floodgates for massive corporate spending on “opinions” that became advertisements that aided candidates.

Corporates favoured Romney, naturally. So many wealthy donors swarmed to Romney’s pre-election party in Boston in private jets that they caused an aerial traffic jam! They contributed to organizations called super-PACs . The biggest super-PAC , controlled by Republican Karl Rove, spent $450 million on harnessing the best brains in advertising and marketing to attack Obama with TV ads. However, fears that this would enable corporations to buy the elections proved false.

The US has an electoral college system where the winner in any state carries all its electoral votes. So dollar-laden super-PACS focused on nine swing states that held the balance of power in the electoral college. Their spending in the final days was $10 million per day! Yet Obama won eight of the nine swing states, losing only North Carolina, a traditional Republican stronghold.

Obama had quarreled with Israeli PM Netanyahu. So, Romney flew to a much-publicised pre-election meeting with Netanyahu, buttressed by multi-million dollar ads in the US portraying Obama as a betrayer of Israel. Yet Obama’s share of the Jewish vote fell by no more than his share of the total vote. Money made no difference . So, is money totally irrelevant? Not totally. It cannot change the big picture, but can work at the margin. Politicians fear they might lose by just 0.5-1 % of the vote, and this small fraction can indeed be swayed by well-directed spending. Leftists think corporations buy legislators through contributions, but that’s contestable. Legislators from farm states support agricultural subsidies because of their farmer vote bank, not because they have been bought by agribusiness campaign contributors.

Moreover, there is an old saying that a US senator is one who goes to contributors and eats their food, takes their money, sleeps with their daughters, and then does exactly as he pleases: and if he can’t do that, he’s not fit to be a senator! This is a gross exaggeration, but has a kernel of truth.

Indian politicians think the US example justifies big money in Indian elections. Even supposedly honest Indian politicians justify spending black money as a regrettable necessity. Well, basic electioneering costs several lakhs per constituency, but actual spending is in crores. Naveen Jindal said at an NCAER seminar that only 1% of the money made by politicians goes for elections: the rest is simply pocketed. He is both an industrialist and politician , so he should know. Indian history shows that, as in the US, you cannot buy elections. Incumbent governments have far more money (through extortion and favourgranting ) than the opposition, yet incumbents usually lose (save for outstanding performers).

In India, as in the US, politicians believe that money matters at the margin. Maybe, but that cannot justify the humungous crores spent illegally, let alone the humungous crores simply pocketed. In the US, millionaires spend their own money to enter politics. But in India, politicians enter politics to become millionaires, illegally. That’s why the connection between money and politics is so much more offensive in India.

This will not change till we have a police-judicial system that quickly convicts crooks after all appeals. In 1973, Spiro Agnew was slapped with corruption charges and made to resign although he was Vice-President of the US, no less! Wall Street kings like Bernie Madoff and Rajat Gupta plus corporate honchos like Enron’s Ken Lay and Worldcom’s Bernie Ebbers have been jailed. But in India influential people die of old age before getting convicted beyond all appeals. Until this changes, the role of money in politics will remain far murkier in India than in western democracies, even though politicians there are no angels.

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