Elections in South Asia and other democracies are associated with political parties doling out money to poor people in exchange for their votes with the help of goons. Voting in many rural and disconnected areas brings unprecedented goodies and revelry, from feasts to entertaining shows, and movie screenings to festivals of light and sound. Roads start getting built overnight, water starts to run in the taps and suddenly street lamps emerge from nowhere. In many parts of South Asia, elections mean that villages stay intoxicated for weeks as different political parties keep outdoing the other in terms of providing free booze to men who are living on the dole or working behind different banners.
Discussions don’t focus on the manifesto of the political parties but on who is giving what. Real-life situations in many parts of India have formed the central plot of many Bollywood movies. The drama unfolds as brothers contest against each other, parents go against their own children and spouses go against each other. National level dramas of Gandhi scions in opposite parties provide enough fodder for chat at watering holes.
Nepal’s experimentation with democracy and elections has been heavily influenced by Indian practices and ‘vote for note’ has become the fundamentals of elections. What happens with notes is beyond the comprehension of psephologists and media surveys; therefore, most of them are far from reality.
The reasons for people getting into politics have changed over the century. From wanting to unleash democratic values and practices to investing in a cause, it has now become another very powerful profession for not only securing your own future but also the future of many more generations of progeny. In Nepal, once you are a minister or a key politician, you can stop paying for anything. You can keep vehicles and houses long after your tenure finishes, internet companies will be more than happy to provide you free internet services, dining or flying for free becomes a privilege, and multiple options for different positions open up to keep the cash flowing.
Of course, if you are in the ruling part of the syndicate, it becomes even merrier. Health care comes for free, folded hands at certain embassies can bring scholarships and, of course, jobs for children become something people force upon the politician rather than the other way around. There could be some exceptions to this rule, where people take public transport, go back to their jobs for a living or actually pay for what they need. However, such exceptions have become endangered species.
The Art of Making Money
Now, if politicians need so much money for elections and to keep their parties going, where does this money come from? In India, when the party needs money, the people buy election ‘tickets’. So not only is the party saving on expenses relating to that particular candidate, it is making money instead. Now, if someone is buying tickets and spending money on elections, from whom are they are going to recover the money? It’s a no-brainer: either from their own business or from businesses they want to get into. The emergence of a new wave of business groups and consortiums allegedly linked to different political forces perhaps is an indication of how these relationships are entrenched.
So, shouldn’t political parties start taking money from people in a legitimate way by declaring how much they are taking and from whom? Why shouldn’t it be made easier for people to contribute and for political parties to receive money as everyone is aware that elections mean spending money? Similarly, why can’t a national trust fund be created where people can contribute legitimately and get tax deductions for the contribution? This contribution can then be distributed in proportion to how many votes a party gets. This is one system under which efficient parties that deliver will get more money and those who don’t will not.
Why can’t corporate houses be forced to set aside a tax deductible 2 percent of their revenues for the fund? So the total tax payable gets reduced by 2 percent. Take banks for example: if their total profits are close to Rs3,000 crores, one can easily get Rs30 crores each year which means Rs150 crores in five years. So a party that can secure 40 percent of the votes can actually get around Rs60 crores in funding from just one sector alone. Therefore, it is basically moving tax revenues to a fund that will help the strengthening of democracy. With $6 billion in annual revenues in Nepal, a reduction of a couple of hundred million will not be an issue, but it will help end the practice of business people paying politicians and politicians returning favours. A new breed of entrepreneurs who do not know how to carry suitcases to the houses of politicians will emerge and force power brokers to either start peddling religion or take early retirement.
We need to rethink the issue of institutionalising democracy that can only be delivered through free and fair elections. For elections to be free and fair, the funding process has to be fair. There is nothing like having a system that provides a level playing field and incentivises people who really want to get into politics to change society and the country for the better, not to change their own fortunes at the cost of the country and society.