Paisa, power and politics

The resounding victory of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi shows why it is time political parties adopted accountability measures for party funding

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:32 pm IST

Published - February 11, 2015 01:02 am IST

"In order to cut campaign costs, the AAP used rickshaw posters and hand-held banners to spread campaign messages." Picture shows campaigning for AAP candidate Imran Hussain from Ballimaran Delhi Legislative Assembly seat, ahead of the election. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

"In order to cut campaign costs, the AAP used rickshaw posters and hand-held banners to spread campaign messages." Picture shows campaigning for AAP candidate Imran Hussain from Ballimaran Delhi Legislative Assembly seat, ahead of the election. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Point a finger at someone else and three fingers point back at you. That is what seems to be the case with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accusing the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) of sourcing party funding through ‘hawala’ sources during the fag end of the Delhi election campaign.

The BJP has not declared the contributions made to its party funds above the Rs. 20,000 limit, as required, to the Election Commission of India for the Financial Year 2013-14. And the party is the only national party to not have submitted this report.

Whether the allegations made by the BJP against the AAP before the polls are genuine or not will have to be investigated in the interest of accountability. But more important, the resurfacing of the larger issue of opacity in electoral and party financing on the national stage before a significant electoral contest is an opportunity to address an issue in which political parties have been mostly evading responsibility.

The resounding victory of the AAP in the Delhi Assembly elections shows why it is high time that political parties adopt concrete financial accountability measures for party funding. It is well known that the AAP made a genuine effort at transparently crowdsourcing election funds — seeking donations online, through dinner parties and chai pe charcha meetings — which no other party contesting in Delhi seems to have adopted. Pankaj Gupta, national secretary of the AAP, who also raised funds for the party, told The Hindu that though they had set the Rs. 30 crore target for the 2015 elections, they were able to raise only about Rs. 20 crore. “We were able to manage our election campaigns this time due to the spirit of volunteerism,” he said. The party adopted a number of cost-cutting measures with volunteers refusing payment for their work, not using television or print advertisements as they cost more money, and instead using autorickshaw posters and hand-held banners to spread campaign messages. AAP volunteers turned into “human banners” standing for hours atop bridges and flyovers holding 40 feet by 10 feet banners.

AAP spokesperson Yogendra Yadav is critical of the current obsession with the question of ceiling and prescriptions to limit how much can be spent during elections. Such limits encouraged under-reporting of expenses, he says, adding that the real problem is not that some people spend too much and therefore they win. Beyond a point, spending more doesn’t mean you win. The real challenge is unless you spend a certain minimum amount you simply won’t be in the race. And that minimum has gone up over the years, compromising the democratic process, he says.

Apathy towards accountability

When the Central Information Commission (CIC) issued an order to six major national parties asking them to open up to Right to Information (RTI) queries, none of the parties, including the ruling BJP now pointing fingers at the AAP, implemented the order. In November 2014, when the CIC summoned political parties to question them why they hadn’t implemented its earlier order asking six major political parties to implement the RTI Act, none of them turned up for the hearing. Although the RTI Act does provide protection to concerned parties from having to reveal information that would compromise their competitiveness, political parties have resisted implementing the CIC’s order citing the possibility of interference in their internal decision-making processes.

It is also striking that not a single person has been convicted for violating the expenditure norms set up by the Election Commission of India. “Party candidates are even known to lie in their affidavits submitted to the ECI,” Jagdeep Chhokar, founding member of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), said. He added that only during the validity period of the EC notification is spending by candidates on election expenditure demanded for reporting, whereas parties actually start spending money on campaigns much before that.

This is why the EC needs to be more proactive in cracking down on candidates and parties that spend extravagantly before elections. Former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Navin Chawla told The Hindu that most candidates exceeded the statutory limits when it came to election spending. Nothing should stop the EC from going to court if they have evidence of excessive spending by candidates or parties. Election observers can file cases against candidates. He also recommended state funding of elections as a panacea for current ills. Though the idea of state funding for elections has been recommended by several government-appointed committees including the Indrajit Gupta Committee in 1998 which had set up a reimbursement model, these have not taken off.

Also, what the Delhi election campaign and the AAP experiment have brought to light is that given the enthusiasm for electoral participation in India, many people are also willing to donate to parties, though this cannot of course account for a substantial source of income. People who want the party of their choice to win should also be willing to come forward to donate to it.

But the most pertinent question to be raised in the light of this election is whether more money necessarily means more votes. It is well established that only candidates who are wealthy typically enter the electoral arena in India. This is borne out by data analysed by ADR using candidate affidavits submitted to the Election Commission. In fact, a comparison of the average assets of MLAs from 2013 recontesting in the 2015 Delhi election shows that both the BJP (31) and Congress (8) MLAs were far more wealthy in comparison to AAP MLAs (21), holding assets above Rs. 10 crore, as against AAP MLAs average assets of about Rs. 1 crore. This is not to say that the AAP does not have crorepatis among its ranks, but that many of the BJP and Congress MLAs were far better placed financially.

In his recently released book An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election , former CEC S.Y. Quraishi narrates the story of Baikunth Bhai Mehta who contested the 1935 elections to the Maharashtra Assembly without spending any money on the campaign, due to a condition imposed upon him by Mahatma Gandhi. Mehta followed the advice of Gandhi both in letter and in spirit and went on to win the election. He won without himself having had a campaign financer.

But that was of course in 1935. But 80 years since, will the aam aadmi still vote to power a candidate or a party that does not have wealth to flaunt? With Delhi witnessing a fledgling party with limited resources pitted against a well-funded and well-entrenched national party on the election battleground, Tuesday’s verdict has provided us the answer.

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