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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Paybacks from the hustings

In the US as in India, policy outcomes are linked to election funding

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Some might see Hurricane Sandy as an act of god that mocks next Tuesday’s costliest political show on earth. But I am told India’s cost even more than it does to elect arguably the most powerful man on the planet. Whether it does or not, such colossal expenditure inevitably prompts the question: Are the gains of democracy worth the outlay?

Consider the figures. Bill Clinton’s from $330 million to $425 million between 1992 and 1996. spent $525 million in 2000 and $880 million in 2004. That’s only the winner’s outlay. Against Barack Obama’s more than $760 million last time, spent $358-plus million and $244 million.

The Rs 10,000-crore bill for (about 25 per cent cash) is even worse. It might be argued India’s bigger exercise involves many more voters spread across a varied terrain. But the cost of living being so much lower, India’s per capita outlay (especially after purchasing power parity adjustment) is astronomically higher.

One reason could be that our voters or their minders are more greedy. Another is that our politicians, whose “corruption, mediocrity, indiscipline, venality and lack of moral imagination” lamented in The Burden of Democracy, have a much bigger stake in the outcome. As the spate of recent scams confirms, the pickings of political office are growing ever more luscious. Ambitious men and women are eager to hitch their star to a political wagon in the certainty of highly lucrative legislative membership.

American politics may not be as blatant, but are not qualitatively different. The Wall Street banks that are Mitt Romney’s most generous donors certainly don’t expect restrictions on their operations, if he moves into the White House. Having taken $700,000 from Microsoft and Google, Obama can’t turn round in his second term (assuming on the basis of trends in the major swing states of Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida that there will be one) and say he is throwing the field open to all comers.

Think of how long it took India to reduce the Ambassador car’s domination of our streets. Surely Hindustan Motors’ monopoly is not unconnected with the links was careful to forge with Gandhi even before independence. The Maruti signified the emergence of another and qualitatively different power centre.

James Inhofe, the Republican senator who denies that human activity has anything to do with climate change and global warming, received about $500,000 in five years from the oil and gas industry. One of his sponsors, Koch Industries, set up the organisation which founded the Tea Party movement. Another, Murray Energy, is America’s largest privately owned coal company. Devon Energy and Contran Corporation, two other supporters, have similar reputations.

I once met an American Congressman who spoke plausibly and persuasively on human rights violations in India. Another repeatedly tried to reduce or stop aid, and strip India of its most favoured nation status. It later emerged that American Khalistani organisations were among the biggest financiers for both men. One was especially friendly with Didar Singh Bains, former chairman of the Khalistani World Sikh Organisation and said to be the biggest peach grower in the US.

All this evidence of corruption, cronyism and corporate power reminds me of an old friend Andrew Roth who died two years ago, aged 91. As a young reporter in London, I would consult Andrew’s files for the financial low-down on British politicians. His cyclostyled book, Parliamentary Profiles, gave the business links that all Members of Parliament (MPs) are now forced to disclose.

Indian MPs are also similarly obliged, but then, every disclosure in India has an undisclosed cash element.

All this has always been known. Arvind Kejriwal’s announcement only inserts one name for another. That is always a dangerous game. Inevitably, it arouses suspicion of a business rival prompting the disclosure. It’s more important to find a solution — if there is one. All manner of funding schemes have been proposed. None is foolproof. But some are less porous than others and should be considered. Generally, however, if canvassing needs money and the candidate himself doesn’t have it, whoever funds him will demand his gratitude. He who pays the piper, calls the tune — in India as in the current presidential poll.

It’s a cruel irony that fortunes should be squandered on buying votes at a time when Hurricane Sandy’s damage to the economy is estimated at an awesome $15 trillion. And, it’s supposed to be in the cause of the people!


sunandadr@yahoo.co.in  

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