The 2019 Lok Sabha polls will go down as a watershed election.
With two of the seven-phased 2019 general election left to go, the Election Commission (EC) has reported countrywide confiscation of cash, gold, liquor and drugs. The haul, at the last count, is valued at over Rs 5,000 crore.
By the time polling concludes on May 19, this figure could go up significantly. Since the announcement of the election schedule on March 10, money has been impounded in drives by the authorities. The EC figures say that cash amounting to Rs 142 crore was seized between March 11 and 25 this year, the first 15 days of the general elections being announced.
Interestingly, what is confiscated is likely to be less than five per cent of what is being spent by candidates and parties in this general election. These are extremely worrying trends. The total approximate expenditure in this election — as calculated by me and now being confirmed by the news media — is Rs 50,000 crore. This is arguably the largest sum of money ever spent in an election, the American presidential polls included. Yet, there is scarcely a word on the subject by any political party or leader; a subject that poses a threat to the very fundamentals of the Republic. At the same time, leaders and candidates continue to accuse each other of bribing voters.
The news media, particularly TV channels, have been prominently reporting the confiscations with all the imagery at their command. Based on a survey conducted during the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) had demonstrated that extravagant media coverage of the seizures heightened the expectations of the voters sky high. With more billionaires than before contesting the polls, the expectation of the money spent too has skyrocketed.
According to the Commission, with gold, silver, liquor and cash taken together at the end of the second phase, Gujarat topped with seizures worth Rs 1,000 crore, followed by Punjab and Delhi. Only a case study can tell us why Gujarat, dominated by one party, has to unleash so many lures to keep the electorate in good humour.
On cash confiscations alone, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka top the table. Now Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal too have joined this note-for-vote race. In Andhra Pradesh, a week before the first phase of polling on April 11, the EC had identified 116 of the 175 assembly constituencies as money guzzlers. In other states too, the Commission has shortlisted constituencies where the money is likely to play a dominant role in the elections.
Yet, despite EC’s expenditure observers scanning the political landscape with a fine microscope, no breakthrough in reversing this trend is evident. That so much cash, liquor, gold and silver (now even drugs) is flowing extensively in so many different directions, does not bother anyone. It is clear that the percentage of voters who are being seduced with such lures is on the increase.
Two major studies conducted by the CMS in 2005 and 2007 in 20 or more states, and select studies since then in every round of elections, have confirmed that the note-for-vote trend continues unabated, never mind the lip service politicians pay to wage a historic battle against corruption. The studies had indicated that cash was in distribution, irrespective of class, both in urban and the rural areas.
CMS studies on corruption over the 15 years have proved beyond any doubt that election-time expenditure of candidates is the mother of all corruption.
Without addressing this malaise, no other initiative or measure taken by the government is going to make any difference. That most — if not all — of this election money remains unaccounted, is of no concern to India’s political parties and their leaders. On the contrary, they seem to like it.
There is another, larger issue at stake here. Despite such intense campaigning by candidates and parties, whirlwind visits and public meetings of top leaders and saturation media coverage, why do contestants still have to rely on enticements and cash doles? If politicians genuinely believed that their campaigns motivated voters, they would not be throwing away money like this.
They might as well bid for votes and let the richest among them win! After all, that is where things are coming down to. It is also likely that our leaders secretly believe that money is more important than controversies, personal accusations and irrelevant rhetoric.
In this particular paradigm, it is difficult to see better sense prevail. It is also ambitious to expect an elected public representative who can strengthen democracy and represent peoples’ concerns in an effective manner.
The 2019 Lok Sabha polls will go down as a watershed election. Quid pro quo has become the norm, with corporates and businesses becoming the major source of electoral funding.
Citizen or voter contribution to candidates and parties is no longer sought. The question is are we even aware of this change and its implications, or even whether this shift has taken place transparently?
Under the circumstances, news media can play a more positive and proactive role, making a difference to reverse the present trend, if only they are determined enough to pursue it as a strategy. But if the media itself is drowned in a conflict of interest and in an obliging mood, even that would be difficult.