Why the public must fund candidates for elections
It is universally accepted that elections are the very source of corruption. You need several crores to contest and campaign in an election and ultimately win it. According to the Election Commission, each candidate is allowed to spend a maximum of Rs. 15 lakhs in a constituency in the state assembly election. This amount is a real joke in this day and age. Despite this stipulation, no candidate has ever landed in serious trouble for spending more than this amount. As a result, candidates, especially from major political parties, spend several crores of rupees to contest and win elections. Where does this money come from? Clearly, these are from vested interests and undeclared black money that pours in from different quarters. These contributors automatically expect favors once the candidate wins the election. So, compromises are made at the very start of the process.
None of the current political parties are ever going to bring about any reforms whatsoever to fix this problem. Over the years, they have established a well-oiled fund raising machinery that ensures the smooth and steady influx of hordes of cash to fight elections. This is often used to dole out goodies at the time of election ranging from liquor, plain hard cash, TV sets, laptops, etc., in order to win votes. The Election Commission has not shown the wherewithal to do anything about this either. So sadly, the practice continues undeterred. The amounts required to fight elections increase so dramatically with each election that it has now become virtually impossible for an honest candidate to contest and dream of winning an election without making compromises. Under these circumstances, what choices do we have? We can continue to remain bystanders while our elected representatives are well and truly sold out to big donors even before they are elected, or we can take steps to reform the process ourselves by crowd-funding candidates and parties we support that are committed to a process of open and transparent fund raising.
The Aam Aadmi party (AAP) has taken a unique step in this direction. They have sought funds directly from the people and routinely list the contributors and the amounts collected on their website. The party announced that it has managed to raise about 2 crores from the public. At the 15 lakhs per constituency stipulated by the Election Commission, AAP is going to need five times as much as it has raised to date before November to contest all 70 seats in Delhi. A tall order indeed. Considering that AAP is up against the endless funds of BJP and the Congress, this amount is clearly a paltry sum. Nevertheless, it’s a start. As a nation, if we care to curtail corruption at the very source, we need to step up and support parties like AAP that say no to contributors who wish to remain anonymous.
In the US, less than one percent of the population contributed to the Obama campaign in 2008. Still, this helped his campaign raise a substantial amount of funds that eventually fueled his victory. US citizens are accustomed to making campaign contributions. Besides, in the US, the process of online payments is far more streamlined and credit cards are universally available to all and sundry. All of this is fairly new to India. Nevertheless, this is likely to be the future. It’s up to us as the caring public of India to circumvent the major political parties who are more than happy with the status quo. The public has to fund and ensure the success of parties and candidates that are committed to open and transparent fund raising. This is an area in which the often maligned middle class can also play a very critical role. From the comfort of their living rooms, they can make generous contributions and spread the word among their friends and families.
Kudos to AAP for pioneering this process despite serious challenges. Firstly, there is the challenge of encouraging people to contribute online, something most people have never done before. Secondly, the party has had other challenges like banks and payment gateways that are fearful of working with them. The ball is in the people’s court to step up and set the stage for a future where candidates are not sold out before they are elected into office. The people of Delhi have a unique opportunity in the upcoming state assembly elections to ensure that this experiment actually works. If successful, this could prove a terrific model for the rest of the country and would be an exciting triumph for democracy and people power over vested interests and black money.
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This was first published in the Economic Times website.