Cheques, balances

EXPRESS EDITORIAL, Saturday, June 14, 2008

RTI scrutiny of political parties’ funds should remove doubts about large private funding

An RTI application about significant donations to the Congress and the BJP has predictably brought interesting revelations. For instance, Dow Chemicals, an American company that acquired Union Carbide and is facing demands for greater compensation for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak, gave Rs 1 lakh to the BJP, which rules Madhya Pradesh. The fickleness of Goa’s politicians is reflected in a curious way: the very same local companies fund both parties. All this is, however, not just grist for the trivia-hunter’s mill.

In showing how the public is now empowered by the Right to Information legislation to scrutinise political contributions, this instance should also remove cynicism about encouraging political parties to generate funds from the public, including corporates.

Every narrative that seeks to get to the root of corruption in India lingers extraordinarily long at one factor: political parties’ need for huge amounts of money to fund electoral campaigns. The magnitude of funds spent every election is by any realistic estimate greatly more than the limits prescribed by the Election Commission. This reality periodically elicits demands for consideration of state funding of elections.

But state funding is difficult, not least because, given the many layers of elections in our parliamentary and grassroots democracy, the monies needed would be inordinately more than what can be considered an optimum state contribution.

Moreover, state funding models work better in two-party systems. In our crowded politics, these models would disadvantage small parties, which are forever coming up, sometimes to reflect thus far hushed social aspirations. How then to clean up our electioneering?

There are good reasons why there is public doubt about corporate funding, the most important being concern about quid pro quos. Yet, given the yawning gap between money spent and money accounted for, clearly funds are acquired by political parties and candidates from somewhere and by some means, none of which is in any way healthy. The need is for these contributions to be brought onto the account books of parties. The RTI mechanism has already shown itself to be strong enough to allow public scrutiny — of funds and the executive decisions involving donors of those funds. Besides, the new economy is already narrowing the dark spaces where shadowy transactions can take place.

Together, these developments should change the cynical attitude towards unlimited private contributions to political parties. Also, remember, by funding political parties, we the people become stakeholders in organisations democratically empowered to take decisions on our behalf. :: Cheques, balances

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