Poverty talk is common; wealth is taboo — even when crorepati candidates (millionaires, billionaires) are on the rise in elections today. There is no doubt whatsoever that our elections are conditioned by wealth, and the rich are thriving on the benefits drawn from their money power. Ironically however, in our people’s democracy, no calls for fair elections are considered credible unless they are accompanied by cries for reforms in the role of wealth and wealthy candidates in the elections. Chances are that the Indian elections of 2009 might get caught up in this credibility trap.
In the first phase of elections, data (affidavits) available of 1440 candidates out of a total of 1715, compiled and analysed by the National Election Watch, is revealing: There are 193 crorepatis contesting elections in this phase; they have increased from 9 percent in 2004 to 14 percent in 2009. Congress has 45, followed by BJP and BSP, with 30 and 22 respectively. All parties, including independents, share this burden. Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh have a majority of them. Their total assets go as high as 173, 125, 89, 72, 56, 45, 30 crores. Neither the earth, nor the sky is the limit. And the declared assets may just reveal a partial picture, considering the fact that most of them (979 candidates) do not even bother to have a permanent account number (PAN), which is necessary for filing annual income tax returns.
There are several incongruities in this situation of the rich occupying a considerable electoral space and race. For example, while a majority of the people in the Vidarbha and the Marathwada region of Maharashtra are living under poverty, the personal wealth of election candidates has significantly increased in the past five years. Both regions have 224 candidates, and the average asset value of each is Rs. 68 lakhs, up from 37 lakhs in 2004. Further, there are 28 crorepatis among them. Topping the list is a ministerial candidate, with assets worth Rs. 76 crore. The highest number, i.e. three each, of crorepatis are in one of the poorest tribal segments, Gadchiroli-Chimur, and in the farmer suicides affected Akola.
Being at the service of its citizens, the State is the steward of people’s resources, which it has to administer with a view towards a common good. As an instrument of a democratic state, political representation and public administration at different levels – national, regional, local – should consist of those people who have the track record and commitment to identify and share fully in the destiny of the common people. In this context, we cannot forget or underestimate the class dimension of political representation. Who will represent whom? What will be represented and how? Will the richest candidates, coming from the mining areas of Andhra Pradesh, be putting their political power into practice for the poor, displaced, devastated villagers? How will the richest candidate of Arunachal Pradesh, connected with the timber merchant, voice the concerns for the protection and conservation of the degraded forests and forest dwellers? In the electoral context, the riches and its goods are not in themselves condemned, as much as their misuse. This consists of corruption, seduction, bypassing the expenses, and other unlawful activities.
Our electoral space should be a place to build relationships between elections and equity. Democracy all over is of course being used by all — poor and rich, upper and lower castes, men and women — for extracting benefits. Not every citizen in this country occupies an equal share in the democratic space; the shares are disparate. The electoral space, however, is not infinite; it has boundaries in terms of a fixed number of constituencies and seats. More the boundaries of this space are put under stress by a large of number of wealthy people entering into the electoral fray, more the distribution of the space takes on a dramatic note, because a large share on one side implies a smaller share on the other. These boundaries should therefore alert us towards the need to protect the democratic parameters of sincerity, legitimacy and suitability in selection of candidates by the party. The commercialisation, commoditisation and corporatisation of the electoral space, by an increasing presence and domination of the rich, must be guarded against by new checks and balances, and if required, by new legislations. Equally important, a vibrant democratic politics requires keeping an overall check of the rich flows within the boundaries of the electoral space.
Reforming the financial architecture of Indian elections, and going beyond a simple and ineffective system of expenditure cap, is vital to electoral reforms and democracy. Today’s grey and black, hidden and implicit, flowing and hot money systems, working within the elections at all levels, are one of the main flywheels of both political and democratic destruction, while simultaneously exacerbating the gap between the rich and the poor and between those who can afford it and those who cannot. Taming the Indian electoral scenario from unaccounted money flows and distribution is an urgent task. Haunted by the disturbing images of distribution of money amongst the people by strong political leaders, the Election Commission had rightly reminded us of the need to cool out the hot money during the election process, but this is a very small step to stop the wide and varied transmission lines. Estimates of illegal high money flows in the elections run very high.
India has proudly produced a significant number of millionaires and billionaires in the past decades, and the concentration of wealth and unequal society has been prominently displayed regularly and without any shame. The electoral process is getting more and more influenced by this trend. In this context, the concerns about crorepati candidates are not just a matter of elections, but also one of equity. Though elections in India are also called a big economic activity, this form of it is disastrous, as ultimately it will keep the people poor and constrain their capacity to enhance their lives and to move towards deepening democracy. Time and again, the rich and the mighty shield themselves against inequality and poverty, exploitation and injustice prevalent in the country, by dropping some charity and benefits in front of the doorsteps of the poor. Indian elections should not be another time to deprive the poor and the citizens of their democratic resources, in order for the rich to corner the country’s resources.
Wealth is the Siamese twin of poverty. Both develop jointly and neither can be fully understood without reference to the other. Many commentators and campaigners today put the spotlight on people’s participation in the election processes, like the right to vote, and the criminalization of candidates in the elections. But the entry and influence of the rich in distorting elections and democratic processes has relatively remained in the shadows. Indeed, conventional experts define caste, illiteracy and lack of consciousness as the main problems. People are working at lifting the threshold. At the same time, because of several factors, the roof has gone exceedingly high, which has to be lowered or modified. The quest of fairness in the electoral world means altering the reach of the rich in the first place, not the poor. The issue of fair elections, in other words, cannot be separated from unfair wealth.