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Courtesy: The New Indian Express

The post-1947 polity in India was characterised by the dominance of  a single party or the ‘Congress System’, as the political scientist Rajni Kothari termed it. The single-party dominated democracy went together with the state-controlled planned economy. 

Apparently, the stymied competition in both electoral and economic marketplace didn’t bode well for the progress of the fragile Republic. One obvious manifestation of the monopolised political economy lay in the domain of electoral funding mechanism. Since the Congress politicians in power could employ levers of the state (license, quota, permit, import substitution mechanism) to decide the fate of the corporate houses, the Big Business paid paeans to socialism and filled Congress coffers with donation money. 

These corporate donations oiled the Congress electoral machinery, which was formidable until the onset of the second phase of the party system in 1967.  The corporate houses also walked the talk on India’s mixed economy model which protected them from foreign competition and allowed them to make profits in an economy characterized by scarcity for consumers. It was a win-win for both, the big business and the political party in power.

The monopolising tendency in the system didn’t go unnoticed and unchallenged though. Politicians, public intellectuals, and columnists warned of the dangers of the system degenerating into totalitarianism. Most prominent of the lot undoubtedly was the freedom fighter C Rajagopalachari. Apart from the criticism of planned economy and single-party dominance, he also wrote on corporate funding of political parties, which was connected with both matters of polity and economy. 

Produced below is his column from 1968, in which he argued for making the elections inexpensive. Such a proposal, in his view, would lead to an influx of deserving and meritorious public-spirited leaders in legislatures and serve as an important check on the attempts by political parties to hijack the agenda for governance.  

Serious and sufficient attention has not been given in responsible quarters to the problem of making elections to Parliament and to the State legislatures very much less expensive than they are now. I have for a long time been insisting on this as an essential reform. If we desire to have good Government in India this is an absolutely necessary step to be attended to at once. Whether we desire to rest the Government on the majority party basis, or on a coalition basis or a no-party basis, or on a proportional representation system, this reform is a condition precedent. We must make it possible for candidates to contest seats though not able themselves to bear much expense and not desire to depend on wealthy friends or wealthy parties.

The more expensive we make elections, the greater the dependence on political parties will be. The loss of that independence which Edmund Burke wanted for members of Parliament becomes a necessary consequence. The nexus that has developed between the ruling party and the permit-licence-raj which prevails will be a permanent feature of India’s economy if we do not take serious, effective steps to make elections very much less expensive. The party in the office can raise funds from its potential clientele; not other parties.

Every nation has its own peculiarities. Poverty is our peculiarity in India. Poor people should perhaps be content with a monarchic system of government. But we have been ambitious and plunged for democracy, based on elections. This ambition cannot be truly fulfilled unless our experienced administrators find a way to make elections dead cheap. I would go so far as to say that we ought to be willing to sacrifice many good features if we can succeed in making seat in the legislature available to a man or woman of merit, however poor he or she may be, without having to go and beg for money from others to enable him or her even to try.

We have had quite a few general elections, and some of our retired officials as well as some still in office, have acquired considerable knowledge of all the details of expenditure which a candidate has to go through. They can sit together and devise adequate measures to bring about the reforms I am insisting upon. The party now ruling in Delhi should realize that this is one of its most important and urgent responsibilities. It should give up the temptation to maintain its own life by perpetuating the expensiveness of elections for candidates willing to serve in Parliament or in the State legislatures.

As I have often pointed out, much of the expense is really what the State ought to bear on behalf of all the candidates. We should see to this transfer of the burden from candidates to the State, while at the same time safeguarding the voters against the blandishments of the party in power. 

The High Command of the election proceedings should be an autonomous Board totally independent of the ruling executive. This is not a difficult task to organize, as we have already a fairly independent judiciary throughout the country as well as at the top in the Supreme Court. Let us remember that there is not a single reference to political parties in the Constitution. The tendency has however been to make the party system more and more firmly planted. 

Instead of this, we ought to make it more and more easy and popular for independent candidates to enter the legislatures. It may be administratively easier to handle things if candidates come in only through recognized political parties. But what is easy is not always the best way to attain national welfare and efficiency. We have had enough of political parties. Wherever else this system may have done well, it is not doing well in India, and will not do better as time goes on but will get worse and worse. It is crude, undemocratic and immoral to make elections so expensive as to drive candidates to sell themselves to parties by shutting other avenues against them in order to reduce the number of candidates and make official work easy. A panel of experienced men should be immediately set up to deal with this matter of making elections less expensive for candidates desiring to be independent of the financial help of political parties or of wealthy bosses.

If the increase in the number of candidates is thought to be undesirable from any other point of view, a system of voting which will obtain the voters preferences and enable the unspent vote to be transferred to the next preference can be devised. All aspects of the problem should be thoroughly gone into by an expert committee, without losing sight of the main objective, viz., to make elections as inexpensive as possible for candidates. Politics should not become a preserve of wealthy parties or of wealthy men’s stooges.

The original text of the article can be accessed here.

IndianLiberals.in is an online library of all Indian liberal writings, lectures and other materials in English and other Indian regional languages. The material that has been collected so far contains liberal commentary dating from the early 19th century till the present. The portal helps preserve an often unknown but very rich Indian liberal tradition and explain the relevance of the writings in today’s context.

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.