Moneybags calling the shots in Indian elections?

June 8th, 2008 - 2:49 pm ICT by IANS  

By Liz Mathew
New Delhi, June 8 (IANS) Although they themselves are to blame, political parties have finally started to vocally worry over the role of black money in elections in India. The money factor in the recent Karnataka polls has given sleepless nights to many politicians as well as the intelligentsia. Middle-level political activists say that moneybags are marginalising them — slowly but effectively.

The seizure of a large amount of cash in Karnataka during the state assembly elections, the outburst of a Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader in West Bengal and the arrest of a “corrupt” Congress leader in Assam, although unrelated, have helped to push the issue to the forefront.

More and more leaders cutting across party lines are addressing the issue though no one seems to have any ready answers.

A worried Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami revealed that the total value of cash, liquor and goodies seized across Karnataka during the election campaign was a mind-boggling Rs. 455 million (nearly $11 million).

Gopalaswami admitted that he had never come across anything like this in the four years he has spent in the poll panel.

One of his predecessors, T.N. Seshan, had perceptibly remarked over a decade ago that electoral corruption was at the root of all corruption in the country.

N. Bhaskar Rao of the Centre for Media Studies - which studies Indian elections closely - said at least Rs.20 billion ($500 million) was spent by various actors in the Karnataka battle.

“Out of this, at least Rs.14 billion was black money,” Rao told IANS. “We have ample evidence that money influences voters. In Karnataka at least 35 candidates who won are millionaires.”

Senior Congress leader Vayalar Ravi admitted that the new trend was a “major threat to democracy, a menace even more dangerous than the Naxalite (Maoist) threat”.

Another Congress leader, who did not want to be named, admitted that the financial strength of one aspiring to contest elections had become a major criterion.

“A rich candidate is preferred any day to a poor party worker, even if the latter is sincere. Somehow it is felt that the rich can easily win elections,” the leader told IANS.

“Many voters are also looking up to people who spend money on them. We are helpless,” he added.

Another former MP who did not want to be named said: “Money has become very important. People have also become corrupt. Many ask for money to even vote. Poverty could be a reason for it.”

But Rao pointed out that even members of the middle class were getting influenced by money during election time.

The problem seems to be more severe in areas where civil society lacks a vigilance system vis-a-vis the use of money in the democratic process.

According to Rao, in at least 120 of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies, the candidates end up spending more than Rs.20 million to try to get into parliament.

In another 25 constituencies, Rao said, this amount rose to Rs.50 million. “But Karnataka has set a new benchmark (in money power).”

Gopalaswami had said recently: “If a candidate is willing to spend 10 times more than the prescribed ceiling on election expenditure, it is done in the secure knowledge that he can earn 10 times more than what he spends once he gets to the seat of power.”

After his party suffered reverses in the panchayat elections in West Bengal, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Biman Bose hit out at corrupt leaders.

“Those who didn’t have bicycles have built houses and are moving in cars. From where did you get the money?” Bose asked while speaking to party cadres. “You should look at yourselves in the mirror and compare what you were like. What you see in the mirror is often your blemished face.”

Years ago, the BJP had declared that it would accept only cheques from business-donors. The promise was never implemented. And no political party is interested in cheques — cash is preferred, for obvious reasons.

A politician from Karnataka insisted that “miners” in Bellary had played the deciding factor in determining the outcome in Bellary and adjoining areas.

“They bought over candidates at least in five districts and thus became the kingmakers. The role played by the miners in the formation of a state government now stares at Indian democracy.”

Vayalar Ravi added: “The rich are snatching away the fundamental right of an average voter to decide who should rule.”

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