On the face of it, the United States presents a shining example of democracy. But there was never a doubt in the mind of any sane person that in reality it is a two-party dictatorship.
Depending upon the mood of the electorate and the amount of funds collected by the two political parties (Republicans and Democrats), the winner keeps rotating the White House between the two. But for capturing the power base, the decisive factor has always been the availability of funds or “war chest” at the disposal of the two parties.
Indian elections every five years are also seen as a great democratic exercise that we must all be proud of. In a sense, it is indeed once-in-a-five-year opportunity for voters to show their (low monetary) value to the rulers.
But like every other aspect of life that we Indians are following in the footsteps of the US (e.g. trying to legalize gays and banning death penalty, among others), elections after elections Indian democracy is also being heavily Americanized i.e. monetized and dramatized.
India’s 2014 election spend, which can include cash stuffed in envelopes as well as multi-million-dollar ad campaigns, has been estimated at Rs. 300 billion (US$ 5 billion) by the Center for Media Studies. Globally, this election budget is only second to the US$7 billion spent by candidates, parties and support groups in the 2012 US presidential race, the world’s most expensive, according to data provided by the US election commission.
Electing our leaders for the next five years cannot be free and must entail a reasonable cost. But such an exorbitant election spend to keep our democracy alive creates barriers for those political forces that are unable to steal, rob or otherwise “collect” funds for their election campaign. “Like other big parties, we cannot afford to advertise through electronic or print media as we cannot bear the high expenses,” complained a leader of the Aam Aadmi Party.
But where is all this big money ending up?
Yes, funds are going back to where they come from: business houses! According to media reports, spending on previous Indian elections have benefited a wide range of businesses, from media groups and advertisers that rake in campaign-ad revenues to consumer-based firms that capitalize indirectly on the overall jump in spending, such as motor-bike manufacturers and brewers like United Spirits!
So it is evident that there is no tangible benefit to common man from either the multi-billion dollar election campaigns or from those candidates who are “elected” as a result of this prohibitively expensive 5-yearly exercise that some of us are so proud of.
A recent Reuters report states the obvious: “Rules allow candidates to spend 7 million rupees on campaigns for a parliament seat but the real cost of winning is about 10 times that, thanks to spending on rallies, fuel and media campaigns that often include payments for coverage. Indian politicians regularly bribe voters with cash payouts or alcohol to secure their support. Recent state elections have seen innovations such as getting money to voters via mobile phone credit and envelopes of cash delivered in morning papers”.
It is a no-brainer that if candidates or their financial backers “invest” 70 million rupees per parliamentary constituency, what kind of “returns” they would be expecting from their “investments” in the next five years. All the dividends of this democratic exercise are only shared between the donors and the political horses they are backing.
There is nothing much in this grand scheme for the voters who should ideally be the sole beneficiaries of this entire exercise! On the contrary, some parties promising real and much needed change with very distinct agenda and value proposition are so short of funds that they cannot make it even to the mid-point of the official ceiling per constituency.
Qasim Rasool Ilyas, Secretary General of the newly launched Welfare Party of India, told me in a recent conversation that “it would be great if we can raise even 3.5 million rupees for each candidate, which is only half the legally permissible amount per constituency”.
But thanks to technological advancements there are some silver linings for the “poor political parties” too. On the other hand, according to experts, the media scenario has changed completely, there is a lot of fragmentation in it. Opportunity to see the ads is getting low. Social media or other unconventional media are coming out as cost-effective alternatives.
In a poor country like India where for the majority of the population putting food on the table for the family is becoming increasingly expensive, providing quality education and healthcare to kids is prohibitively expensive, seeking justice through the judicial system is expensive and finally electing leadership (only for the next five years) is so expensive then are we as a nation on the right track?
Historically, there is low voter turnout in every election averaging in the range of 50% to 60% only. More alarming is the fact that the voter turnout is dropping consistently over the last four elections in particular, according to The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. This probably gives us a clue if not a clear answer to the above question.