Money in politicsIn South Asia, elections are treated as festivals and voters as consumers of lies
At the recently held ‘Regional Conference on Money in Politics and its Effects on People’s Representation’ in New Delhi, International IDEA Secretary General and Former Prime Minister of Belgium spoke of the need for new lenses to understand the nexus between money, political parties and political processes, which has undergone dramatic changes in South Asia in the last 65 years.
The rising costs of running for office are keeping people from contesting elections in the region. And due to absence of public funding, private undisclosed funds have resulted in unhealthy political competition. Women, who account for half of the population, are still under-represented as they lack financial independence to be able to contest elections. It is not that there are no legal regulations in place, but the implementation, enforcement and monitoring of these rules have been challenging. However, a joint regional declaration—The New Delhi Declaration on Political Finance Regulation in South Asia 2015—is a step forward towards finding localised solutions for a problem that is changing the definition of democracy.
Business of lies
Political parties have an immense talent when it comes to lying. Party members lie about their strength to get nominated as election candidates. Parties lie about the sources of funds used to fight elections and while submitting expense statements on elections. Tall claims in political manifestos are comparable to the ones made by clinics that boast of tackling hair loss or weight loss. Political parties that own media houses further complicate matters. As parties fight elections based on lies, lying consequently becomes a way of political life. Money enforces lies and ensures that the business of lies is managed in a superb manner.
South Asian democracy, therefore, treats elections as festivals and voters as consumers of lies. Elections are all about selling perceptions. The voter—as a consumer of democracy in this festival—sees this as an opportunity to receive goodies, and the political parties meet their expectations by providing money and gifts. Thus, people perceive the relationship between the voters and politicians to be that of consumers and wholesale dealers of democracy. They look at it only from a transactional perspective and not a transformational one. Many wholesale dealers then compete by making better offers and providing cash incentives. Subsequently, political parties—the oligarchs of democracy—behave like a cartel and fight against regulations that demand accountability and transparency. Additionally, there is a conflict of interest as they are both regulators and service providers of the ‘democracy industry’. All parties work together beautifully to thwart any moves that will change the rules of the game.
A delegate from the Communist Party of India shared how the Communist movement in India has suffered due to an uneven level playing field—bigger Indian national parties raise a lot of money. While disclosure laws in India demand parties to reveal the source of contributions above INR 20,000, interestingly 80 percent of the contributions received by the parties are shown to be under INR 20,000. In Nepal, the communist parties have been good at raising money. And perhaps because ‘money breeds money’ they have been able to use it to control the legislature. Politics in South Asia is simply seen as a means to earn money and secure one’s own future rather than to contribute to nation building and economic development. This creates a vicious cycle whereby politicians make more money while in power and spend it to win the next elections and this subsequently ensures that they make more money. A testimony to the interrelationship between power and money is the fact that former politicians in India do not want to vacate government residencies once they are out of power and the Nepali Cabinet currently is eager to provide lifelong benefits to people who have ever been in power.
As people argue for proportional representation elsewhere in South Asia, we have allegedly made selling proportional representation seats a good source of income for political parties in Nepal. While representation of women has increased, it has only been used to get the numbers right without giving women the power to make decisions. In India, there are husbands who carry business cards with the words ‘Pradhanpati’ or Husband of the Village Head, demonstrating the paternalism that dictates political power and decisions. Successively, the more rules that are made, the more ways people find to circumvent them.
Political parties in South Asia have been violating rules related to internal democracy and their finances for too long. It is high time everyone concerned about the issue thought of ways to alter their behaviour and to ensure that real democracy flourishes with pluralistic practices.
In case of Nepal, it is important to look at democracy with a fresh pair of eyes as it prepares for local elections and then for federal and provincial elections. Technology can be a great tool to ensure that there is a level playing field and that violation of rules are reported. Internet and online platforms are the best tools to push for transparency on the funds received and utilisated by political parties at all times—before, during and after elections. We need to realise that democracy is a long-term process and not just an event like Election Day. But the process should begin now.