Dear Annasaheb, your movement – which I followed with scepticism, admiration, and now dismay — stands at the crossroads. At this critical juncture, let me take the liberty of suggesting a new focus, one that I believe tackles the menace of political corruption at a more fundamental level than the Lokpal.
You referred to it in passing during your initial Ramlila agitation, and then forgot about it. In officialese it is called: electoral reforms.
As with all officialese, this conceals the radical potential of the idea. In effect, it means cleaning up the political system.
The context is obvious. The multiple scams that make headlines, and which spurred initial public support to your movement, have at its root two linked phenomena: massive election spending, and the rapid entry of those with business interests into politics.
Last year, I turned to the excellent Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) to prepare a rough estimate of how much candidates spend in one election cycle in India: Parliament, assemblies, municipalities and panchayats. At the lower end, the figure came to approximately Rs 35,000 crore. At the higher end: Rs 81,000 crore (a detailed break-up of how this figure was computed can be supplied on request.) Remember, this is just in one election cycle. But ADR’s analysis of election affidavits for Lok Sabha and assembly elections finds that 99 per cent of candidates declare that they have spent less than the official limit! The hunt for black money should begin at home, in election season, not in the Cayman Islands.
Where is so much unaccounted cash coming from? Again, the answer is under our nose: the dramatic increase in the numbers of the very rich being given tickets in election after election. The result is our Parliament and assemblies packed with builders, mine owners, contractors, liquor distributors and education barons. Businessmen have become politicians, and vice versa.
The task of making policies on the most sensitive areas of our time – land, minerals, water, infrastructure — are now in the hands of these men and women. Unless this is checked, the Lokpal will be the equivalent of wiping the floor with the tap fully open.
This requires two kinds of intervention by you (and when I say you, I mean civil society groups engaged broadly with political reform).
One, direct public mobilisation at election time. Civil society needs to intervene at the critical stage of ticket distribution. Not after the seats are given out, and we are presented with a fait accompli of choosing the lesser evil. Political parties will tell you that in principle they too are disturbed about giving tickets by the dozens to crorepatis and local strongmen. But kya karein, they say. In the end, ‘winnability’ (read: bank balance) is the only factor. Well, reverse this pernicious logic. Set up a monitoring panel in each district of a state which is set to hold elections. For this, forge networks with local organisations and prominent citizens. Make this wide-ranging enough to bypass allegations of partisanship.
This committee can closely observe the selection process of the five top candidates in each seat. If there is an instance of a candidate with a dubious record or whose business dealings pose a glaring conflict of interest, create a noise around it. Equally, build support for candidates with a cleaner track record whose parties might be denying them a ticket. I am not for a minute suggesting this will yield immediate results. But over a period of time, as public momentum develops around cleaner candidates at the selection stage, it might compel political parties to reverse their notion of winnability. Let me add a proviso: I believe strongly in the idea of political parties as the cornerstones of democracy.
To get the desired results, it is best not to treat them solely as adversaries. Use a judicious mix of engagement and, when necessary, confrontation.
Two, start a campaign to push through the backlog of electoral reform, some going back to more than 15 years. The outgoing chief election commissioner, SY Quraishi, summarised the state of affairs in a strongly-worded letter to the prime minister in April.
Let me just recap some key areas. 1) At the moment, candidates can only be disqualified if convicted. Since convictions in India take years, the Commission has proposed that any candidate against whom charges have been framed in crimes with a punishment of 5 years or more be barred. There are safeguards suggested to prevent political misuse. 2) Insist that political parties get their accounts audited in a regular and transparent manner. 3) That they conduct regular, genuine internal elections and not the current system where the leader appoints his/her team unilaterally. 4) And that they face stricter penalties for filing of false election affidavits. There are many, many other important suggestions, found here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/97776781/Letter-to-PM-by-former-CEC-SY-Quraishi. These may not seem like earth-shattering changes; let’s call them Electoral Reforms 1.0. But the fact that they have been festering for decades only reveals deep seated political resistance to any kind of self-correction. Build a campaign to get these measures passed.
The next step is to push for the passing of a comprehensive Electoral Reforms Bill, a recent version here: http://adrindia.org/research-and-reports/recommendations/2011/recommendations-electoral-political-reforms-adr-new
This, by the way, is not to pre-empt the current plans by some of your erstwhile members to directly enter politics. That is their democratic right. But why not channel those mobilisation skills and the goodwill your movement still retains into repairing the current system? This is because like it or not, the existing national and regional parties are here to stay.
Sreenivasan Jain is Managing Editor, NDTV. He anchors the ground reportage show, Truth vs Hype, on NDTV 24x7