Event ReportsPublished on Sep 05, 2019
Controlling poll spending: What India can learn from international experiences

One of the hallmarks of democracy are free and fair elections based on universal adult franchise. Apart from the electorate, the election machinery and other paraphernalia, an integral part of the electoral process are political parties and the money spent in electioneering. The 2019 Indian general elections has several milestones to its name; one of them being that it is the most expensive election not just in Indian electoral history but also in the world. According to a report by Centre for Media Studies, as much as $ 8 billion (INR 60,000 Cr.) was spent in the course of a six-week long campaigns, during the 2019 general elections. This is considered to be a conservative estimate or the ‘tip of the ice-berg’ of the actual money spent.

To address the issue of excessive electoral spending and ways to control it, an interactive session was held with Professor Joo-Cheong Tham, Director, Electoral Regulation Research Network, University of Melbourne, as the key speaker on 22 August. Dr. Niranjan Sahoo, Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative, moderated the session.

Opening the session, Dr. Sahoo made a brief observation on the rising role of money in the Indian political system and the distortions it brings to the Indian democracy in the form of political donations from illegal and tainted sources such as the mafia, rising corruption in the governance system due to quid pro quo, creating entry barriers for smaller parties and political aspirants, particularly from the marginal sections of the society such as tribals, women, etc. He asserted that democracy in its present form requires a lot of money for political advertisements, maintenance of political workers etc. Raising such a humongous sum via traditional routes such as membership fees, subscriptions is not enough to meeting rising expenses. Further, with cut-throat electoral competition and victory margins narrowing, major political parties go all out in spending huge amounts of money while electioneering, with some figures suggesting that as much as INR 40-50 crores were spent on a single Lok Sabha constituency in the 2019 polls.

The excessive spending also affected the parties internally. Certain parties with highly centralised internal structures such as family centric parties control the party functioning and the finances. Tickets go to the highest bidder rather than the most deserving candidates.

Professor Tham presented his perspective as an expert in the field of electoral funding. He pointed out that India was not a unique case on questions of integrity of funding in democratic elections. He spoke of the similarities in other vibrant democracies of the world such as the United States and Australia. Citing the example of Australia, he said that a mining magnate outspent the two big parties in the last general elections in Australia in 2019. Prof. Tham spoke of the two broad dynamics which explain the current election spending. One is the electoral dynamics, where there is a recurring ‘arms race’ among parties to acquire more monetary resources for campaigning and party functions. There is a competition among the parties to smash every old record and create new ones in getting electoral returns (votes) and hence there is excessive spending. Second, is the dynamic of capitalist economy wherein key businesses try to influence political parties through big donations. The big donations to political parties are in reality just small change for the big multinational corporations. The result is a predatory phase of governance instigated by corporations and capitalists.

Prof. Tham pointed out that the demand for election funding is influencing the supply and this issue is not India specific. Quoting an Australian High Court judgment, he pointed out the three types of corruption in electoral funding as Quid Pro Quo, Clientalism i.e. corporatisation of political funding and dependence on particular corporations for electoral funding, and war-chest corruption defined as high levels of corruption which undermines a level playing field in electoral competition especially for the marginalised sections of the society and the newer aspirants. Money being a competitive resource creates a bias favoring the wealthier candidates by increasing their probability of winning.

Explaining the international experiences in controlling electoral spending, Prof. Tham outlined four regulatory goals which need to be addressed before any regulation for capping excessive electoral spending can be attempted in India. The goals were: First, reduce the cost of elections. For instance, in Australia, compulsory voting eliminates the requirement for excessive spending on seeking voter support, thereby controlling the funding to the parties. By doing away with the culture of gift giving and vote buying one can reduce the cost of elections. Second, reduce the funds available; this tackles the supply side of the electoral expenditure by reducing corporate funding. Prof. Tham gave the example of the ban imposed on corporate funding by Mrs. Indira Gandhi which needs to be reinstated if possible. However, while reducing the availability of funds, it is essential to keep in mind that the reduction should not cause a paucity of funds for the candidates and the parties. Third, assist the cost of campaigning. Prof. Tham gave the example of Dinesh Goswami Committee of 1990 while emphasising on the issue of public funding. He pointed out that the current system of indirect public funding by granting Tax subsidies to political parties and free airtime on state broadcaster, is a form of unfairness. Lastly, restrict electoral spending which has been a point of contention and has not been high on the agenda for reforms. Prof. Tham, while explaining the contentious issue, talked about the two models prevalent in the democracies of the world. First, the Libertarian Model which stemmed from the 1976 US Supreme Court judgment, struck down the idea of capping electoral spending as it was in violation of the 1stAmendment of the US Constitution. Guided by the principle of ‘Freedom from’, the argument used for justifying it was that it violated freedom of speech as ‘spending’ was a form of self-expression. Second, Egalitarian Model, the preeminent value of ‘political equality’, emphasises the level playing field in the electoral process. The underlying principle of this model is ‘Freedom to’. It is prevalent in Anglophone democracies like Canada, Australia, etc.

Prof. Tham also outlined five key issues that need to be addressed while devising caps on election spending, namely ‘who to cover’ (candidates, political parties, and third parties), ‘when to apply’, ‘what spending to cover’ (express as well as issue advocacy), ‘determining the level of the cap’ (based on level principle, it should be neither be too high nor too low), and ‘ways to enforce’ (through an independent and adequately sourced agency and a range of effective penalties).

Prof. Tham concluded his speech by suggesting two areas of campaign spending that needs to be tackled, such as ‘abuse of public resources while electioneering’ and ‘ensuring a neutral and non-monopolistic media’.

The interaction ended with a vibrant Q and A session wherein the questions dealt with whether social media was a cheap means of advertising or not, ways in which government and opposition can regulate each other’s spending, and issues related to electoral expenditure in federal democracies, etc.

This report is prepared by Shreya Mishra, Inika Hazarika and Jahnvi Aggarwal, Research Interns, ORF

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.