No democracy for the poor? Data shows richer candidates have a much higher chance of winning Indian elections

BJP is now the richest political party in India. With wealth raining in, often from crony capitalist sources, hidden in schemes like electoral bonds, money is changing our politics for the worse.

 |  5-minute read |   01-05-2019
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"The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it," George Orwell had written.

Let’s understand one simple thing.

On the face of it, an exercise that appears to be about people power is very much about money power. Currently, in the age of post-truth and alternative facts, a few truths are real and stark but no one wants to debate them in the course of the General Election of 2019.

A self-made man, who said that he is both a chaiwallah and a chowkidar, is today at the head of the richest party ever in India’s history — under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, the BJP has become the most stupendously wealthy party in India ever.

Is it the common touch or the Midas touch or, as many speculate, just plain old crony capitalism hidden under clever things like electoral bonds?

This astounding increase in the party’s wealth — and the comparative impoverishment of other parties — really accelerated in the year after demonetisation was announced. In ordinary times, that fact alone should trigger interesting speculation along intriguing lines of enquiry. Remember investigative journalism, anyone?

Since the agencies are in the hands of India’s preeminent party, it is impossible to investigate the mystery of this soaring wealth. Therefore, this shall remain one of the riddles of contemporary democracy.

main_illustration-ph_050119125656.jpgAccording to ECI records, BJP benefits most from the electoral bond scheme launched by the Modi govt in 2017-18. (Representational image: Reuters)

There are, however, some facts that can be stated with authority as they are based on income tax statements that are submitted before the Election Commission of India (ECI). So this is not mere speculation about the costs of the BJP’s heavily mounted and advertised campaigns — including that roadshow in Varanasi that certainly seemed to cost more than the EC guidelines permit.

In 2016-17, the ruling BJP’s income soared to Rs 1,034 crore from Rs 570 crore in 2015-16, according to annual audit reports filed with the ECI on February 8, 2018.

According to the audit report, the BJP’s receipt for 2016-17 matched the receipts for ALL seven parties (including BJP) listed as national parties in the previous year, when the money came to Rs 1,033 crore. 

Can’t wait to see the statements for the 2019 campaign.

So, does money now make our politics go round?

It’s deeply worrying as India is one of the poorer countries of the world that has failed to provide health, education or jobs to millions.

But what the hell — we now throw millions into politics and are always ready to go into battle against some neighbours. That’s it really: the heart of the 2019 battle, beyond the layers of region, caste and state leadership.

Recent elections in the US showed that 91% of the candidates who spent more, ended up winning. Should we pat ourselves on the back or hang our heads in shame that we are going the way of the US — in the last Lok Sabha election in India, the richest candidate won 84% of the time, with the poorest of all candidates losing their deposit on every seat.

Not a democracy for the poor, of the poor, by the poor.

In the world’s largest and the most powerful democracy, therefore, money is a big factor marking the difference between victory and defeat.

US President Donald Trump is a billionaire who threw his money into a campaign that he pulled off. Narendra Modi is indeed a self-made individual who has made his party very, very rich. He wins this round against Trump.

main_modi-voting_050119125504.jpgUnder PM Modi’s leadership, the BJP has become the most stupendously wealthy party in India. (Photo: Reuters)

Let’s also examine what should have been, to my mind, the mega-scandal around electoral bonds that no one debates or writes about in any prominent daily. It was a scheme this government launched in 2017-2018. According to audit reports submitted to the Election Commission, the BJP was the biggest beneficiary of the electoral bond scheme launched by the government in 2017-18, bagging 94.5% of the bonds worth a little over Rs 210 crore.

That’s pure genius — create a scheme of which you will get nearly 95% of the benefit!

There is little to argue over the fact that large amounts of money is eroding Indian democracy, making regimes hostage to crony capitalists and middle-level operators. During the Modi regime, for instance, many raise questions about how jeweller Nirav Modi and his uncle Mehul Choksi managed to apparently defraud so many banks and flee the country? The public may have some answers if we could have examined accounts to check if either made donations to a political party.

The dominant view in the political class now is that the BJP will fail to get a simple majority of its own and will be in need of help from regional players to form a government after May 23. On the matter of creating coalitions, all those who cover politics know there are huge “hidden costs” to get the support of oppositional parties.

For all the money in the world, there are some parties that cannot support the BJP. Others could be “persuaded” to do so, particularly if there are income tax and corruption cases against them. Of course, the exact numbers will determine who can be persuaded and if there’s anything in it for them to be persuaded — or whether the BJP/NDA needs to do persuasion at all.

George Orwell had also written, "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. If that is granted, all else follows."

Can we still count?

Also read: General Elections 2019: Who is funding the electioneering of our political parties?

Writer

Saba Naqvi Saba Naqvi @_sabanaqvi

Eminent political journalist and writer. Author, most recently of Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee To Modi

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