Wherefrom sky-high costs are met with, to benefit whom?
Elections to legislative bodies are projected as among the greatest events—a festivity— in bourgeois parliamentary democracies. In India, the largest of multi-party bourgeois democracy as per boastful claim of the ruling bourgeois quarters, the ensuing elections to Lok Sabha (parliament) are presently being fondly nicknamed as the ‘dance of democracy’. However, this dance is also accompanied by a score of mind-boggling revelations and piercing questions in regard to how costly the dance has become. While people are experiencing it directly before their eyes, finer details are being brought out by searching columnists, research –experts and independent surveys by think-tank organizations. People need to be acquainted with these revelations and so this write-up.
The first questions that may be addressed, is: What precisely is the cost? To what extent has it changed with years?
In the present election to the 17th Lok Sabha, expense per voter is roughly $8 (currently $1 is around 69 – 70 Indian rupees as per Reuters report dated 01-05-19), whereas about 60% of the population in India lives on around $3 a day or less. This is what a Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies held. It added that the cost of the current election has reached an unprecedented $7 billion (that is nearly 50000 crore rupees), which amount is higher than the figure of $ 6.5 billion spent during the US presidential and congressional races in 2016. A US think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimates that the total expense in this year’s election in India may shoot up to $10 billion which is double the amount of the $5 billion spent during India’s 2014 Lok Sabha polls. So India can now jolly well claim for holding the costliest election in the world, though it stands at 103rd position among 119 countries of the world in the measure of hungry population. sliding down from its previous 100th position in just a year.
A few more comparative figures may be further striking. The electoral cost in 2014 represented a rise of 131% over the expenses in 2009, which again recorded a 20-fold increase in 2009 when compared with cost of the first polls held in 1952. In simple terms then, cost of election has been far outperforming the spiralling rise of inflation. In the first six Lok Sabha polls, cost per elector was less than a rupee, which increased massively in later elections. Figures given above show how phenomenal the rate of increase has been in the recent years. And such sky-high expenses as they were in 2014, are equal to the amount of that year’s budgetary allocation of the Union government towards areas of public welfare like education, health and family welfare etc. But more interestingly, it was in the last 16th Lok Sabha election in 2014, that the present ruling party BJP led by Narendra Modi made its sensational dash to power accompanying the steep escalation of the cost. Once in power, the BJP has now grown into the richest political party in the country, with an income of Rs 10.03 billion ( more than Rs 1000 crore) and an expenditure of Rs 7.1 billion during 2016-17, as the party claimed officially [Reported by the Association of Democratic Reform, a Delhi-based organization : Business Standard-11-04-18] . So, the triad is complete. BJP rose to power riding on high election cost, became the richest political party seated in power and when it aspires for the second term, India is conducting the costliest election in the world!
Naturally, the next question is: Where does all this money come from and where does it go to?
Let us again base on some published facts. On the basis of a detailed study on elections in India, Simon Chauchard, a Columbia University lecturer concluded that legal and accounted expenses of candidates of major parties, national or regional, represent only a minuscule fraction of their real expenses—frequently less than 1/30th or 1/50th of the overall amount. Thus there is an exorbitant sum of unaccounted money which even the Election Commission does not seem to be that bothered in investigating and revealing notwithstanding its long-playing refrain of conducting free and fair elections which goes on sounding like prattles. In 2016, the Reserve Bank of India had also rung a warning bell, when it stated there was a surge of Rs 60,000 crore (Rs 600 billion) in cash in the states going to polls that year. Those were assembly elections, and now there is parliamentary election. So the cash flow is also higher. The point is: who withdraws such huge amount of cash from the banks? Even the monopoly-sponsored media had to admit that the “unaccounted for” money is pumped out of the Bank and shoved into the election expenses by “crorepati” or multi-millionaire candidates (number of which is soaring with every election these days) and their parties, corporate houses of monopolists and contractors-business houses to push up the expenditure. (PTI; The Hindu, 13 May 2014, 23 May 2016) Obviously, there cannot be any concrete data on who withdraws how much and spends it in what. One can only study the symptoms and guess how far the disease has penetrated the body of electioneering.
Simon Chauchard and other columnists enumerated a few such symptoms. Indian people, politically attached or not, are now quite familiar with the terms ‘vote bank’ and ‘vote buying’. The former refers to a mass or community of voters who are coupled to a particular party through definite sinister plans and measures. The measures may include playing on some sentiment, which may be even casteist, communal or such others, or distribution of some freebies or doles which are nothing but carrots to people incessantly squeezed and pulverized under capitalist exploitation and concomitant joblessness, poverty and insecurity of life and livelihood. Whatever they be, in essence those measures are no more than ‘bribes’ or the means to ‘buy’ votes. Chauchard identifies such bribing to be on the rise, the parties spending 19 to 64% of their budgets on gifts to voters. Such gifts may be in cash, or in the form of free supply of alcohol or drug, sumptuous food for a day or two or other personal or household goods like blenders, television sets, cycles for girls, shoes for village students and occasionally even goats, which are poured in more virulently during the waning moments of the campaign. Cash may be disbursed through a lump-sum payment to influential citizens such as housing society officials or regional, community or caste association leaders or even local party bosses to send the trickles down the party network. Media reports exposed distribution of hard cash wrapped inside rotis or chapatis or inside food packets to poor voters for buying their support. Then there are the ‘numbers’ of “paid political participation”, which accounts for the money on hired crowds participating in processions, rallies, and meetings. All this may range between 10 and 40% of the total expenses of the candidate.
Of course, these disbursements or give and take occur behind the curtain and make a well-greased industry. On the surface, people find major political parties vying with each other in holding rallies termed ‘historic’, ‘mammoth’ or else, youth busy in so-called political activities, shorn, however, of any real political expressions, implications or intent. From these, the onlookers, that is the voters fix their choice in their own ways. They can also guess the huge amount of money required to make these rallies in their respective areas to be successful in terms of crowd participation, to ferry the participants back and forth, to help the leaders and speakers run hectically across the country in helicopters and to pay the party workers short term wages, incentives through food-liquor-drug and other kinds of intoxicating ‘entertainments’ etc. But the party workers so recruited based on the lure of benefits and short term gains remain ignorant of the countrywide massive flow of money-material behind these electioneering processes. With constituencies increasing in size, target population becomes larger, workforce for campaigning needs to be fattened, updated campaigns need to be bigger, gaudy, dazzling, more ambitious, sophisticated, professional, and competitive. Leaders tend to use helicopters more often than before. More and more buses and lorries are requisitioned for crowd-building. Spending on social media, including costs for buying slots in TV and radio, pages after pages in print media or such other means, have sky-rocketted in 5- year time, rising from 2.5 billion rupees in 2014 to 50 billion rupees in 2019. Similarly more than double the 2014 figure of 12 billion, is likely to be spent on advertising this year, bringing the figure to 26 billion rupees. To keep up with time, the western world, rather the US style of throwing fund-raising dinners are being organized, though still not frequently. As these campaigns generally do not bear any substantial political content, these only need to be made more catchy, more alluring and more massive. And, obviously the richest political party, the BJP, leads this rat race. The single inevitable consequence is increase in costs. Sometimes as a face-saving measure, the Election Commission makes show of seizure of gold, alcohol, drugs and cash. This year such the stated seizure was worth about $456 million since 26 March, more than twice the seizure amount of seized in the entire 2014 election. But that is just the tip of the ice-berg. Besides, one cannot overlook that the government has itself exorbitantly raised all fees, deposit amounts etc. and has made the electioneering processes more and more expensive, outwardly elaborate and extremely cumbrous. It appears that the cumulative effect of all these makes it more and more difficult for any party or any independent candidate to contest elections without spending a lump-sum amount, officially fixed by the Election Commission at 70 lakh rupees, but in reality needing far more. And what is further worth noting is that besides raising the electioneering cost to skew it in favour of a few parties having patronage from moneybags, a thought is being spread surreptitiously that presence of so many parties in the polls is unnecessary, entailing cost and hence need to be curbed through suitable administrative measures. In other words, contesting election is sought to be made exclusive preserve of a few parties of the establishment.
But over and above these, there are more ominous symptoms. Traditionally, parties used to receive funds in cash, cheques, and electoral trusts. Beginning in 2017, the BJP made several changes to election contribution rules. These are as follows. The upper limit on corporate donations to political parties was removed. Companies with partial foreign ownership were allowed to donate. And firms were no longer obliged to disclose which parties they were financially backing. The more striking were the ‘electoral bonds’. These allow individuals or companies to purchase as many bonds as they please to deposit funds in a political party’s bank account in the State Bank of India. Donors identity is not revealed, though political parties are supposed to declare the amount of money they have received through the bonds. These bonds have thus not only made corporate funding easier, these have made the entry of foreign capital smoother in Indian election, as it has allegedly been in USA or France. Also it is a convenient route of ‘beneficial’ use of black money.
One may ask the BJP to explain how far these measures are related to solving any of the burning problems people face in their life. But there is no ambiguity in asserting that these measures are going to make the path smoother for the rich, the big business and industrial houses, the corporate houses of the monopolists to extend their favour through hefty donations to the party of their choice. It does not need many words to say that in these days of acute market crisis and recession and total decadence of the prevailing capitalist system, these donors will never consider their donations anything other than investments to reap profit, as and when time comes. And in this nefarious game too, the BJP has taken the lead.
This brings us to the last question for the present. What for is then this extravagant ‘dance of democracy’, rather the ‘gala circus of bourgeois election’? Here we need to leave the present and go back to far past. More than a century back, Vladimir Lenin, the great leader of the Proletariat, while fighting against distortions and deviations of teachings of Marx and Engels by the opportunists spelt out clearly: “A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell, …. it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it…. To decide once every few years which members of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament – this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, …. in the most democratic republics.” (The State and Revolution, 1917)
Today, all the major parliamentary parties of the country, national or regional, professing rightist or even so-called Marxist views have taken it upon themselves to get engaged in the farcical exercise of parliamentary elections in the bourgeois democratic republic of India with a view to proving themselves faithful page-bearers of the ruling monopolists and by that enjoying power and pelf. So they are enthusiastically performing their role as contestants in the elections through mutually slanderous campaigns refraining themselves from dealing with any serious political questions, any question on why the election is going day by day out of reach for any candidate , any party which stands for toiling people and does not enjoy any corporate- monopolist patronage. Many honest are baffled as to why the political parties are keeping mum at this vulgar extravagance in elections. And here the SUCI (C) provides the answer. All the parliamentary parties are enjoying the booty, some more, some less, depending on their respective positions vis-a-vis the corridor of powers. So none of them dares to speak out and waits for its chance. The SUCI (C) further pronounces emphatically that in this election, it has brought out an elaborate discourse on how should the election be viewed from the perspective of people’s interests laid down by the General Secretary Comrade Provash Ghosh. It emphasizes that people must realize the truth, the ‘real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism’, as enunciated by Lenin. It also brings back that today conscientious people even in bourgeois media are worried with the trend. But armed with Marxism- Leninism and the revolutionary thoughts of Comrade Shibdas Ghosh, the founder General Secretary of the Party and one of outstanding Marxist thinkers of the day, the Party had pointed out the trend emerging even decades back. Thus in reference to the mid-term poll for the 7th Lok Sabha, the Party warned people : “The poll exercise was a costly one with hundreds of crores of rupees , black or white, spent on it either officially or unofficially by the monopoly houses , the industrial and the rural bourgeoisie and even by foreign powers.” [P. Era, vol. 13, no 9, 15 February 1980]. A decade later, the Party reiterated: “The electoral results are now determined by money and muscle power, by adopting foul means….. The newspapers controlled by the monopoly houses and the govt- controlled electronic media are openly misused to project this or that party of combination… as is the choice of the ruling class…”.[ P. Era, v. 23 , no 18 , 2 June 1990] The situation has only worsened. According to a report in Times of India of 12 May last, total cash seized so far during electioneering is Rs 812 crores and total confiscation figure including drug, liquor and precious metals is Rs 3,370 crores. If these are the published figures, one can easily guess how many times more are the real numbers. So the Party now urges democratic-minded conscientious people to raise their voice against this menacing trend of winning elections by money only to help serve the biggest donor, that is, the ruling monopolists. This protest is a part of the parliamentary electoral battle itself, which latter is part and parcel of extra-parliamentary democratic movements on people’s thousand and one problems. Besides these, people have no choice left.