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Jagdeep Chhokar: 'Political parties are very clear they want to keep their financial mechanisms under wraps' | Photograph by Shrey Gupta

‘A candidate’s allegiance is to the ticket-giver not voter’

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: May. 30, 2019
Updated: Mar. 24, 2020

The past two decades have witnessed growing concern over diminishing fair play in elections and lack of transparency in the functioning of political parties. The end of another general election is a good time to review how much progress has been made. Has the role of money power been curbed? Are there fewer criminals getting elected? Do parties tell us enough about their funding and internal processes?

To have some idea of where the country has reached, Civil Society spoke to Jagdeep Chhokar, a founder-member of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). In citizens’ initiatives, ADR has had a pole position. Its surveys and inquiries have done much to expose what is not working in the general interest. It has been a sponsor of forward-looking ideas.

His activism apart, Chhokar  is a former professor of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. He is insightful and goes into considerable detail but not without a sense of humour. Excerpts from a lengthy interview at Chhokar’s home in New Delhi:  

There seems to be a mismatch between people’s expectations from political parties and what they are willing to offer. What are your observations?

In our surveys of 270,000 people with 500 respondents in each constituency, the topmost issue on the minds of voters is the lack of employment and job opportunities. The next four issues are related to agriculture — non-availability of credit, low prices for agricultural produce despite the MSP (Minimum Support Price), the subsidy on fertilisers, the unavailability of seeds and power. Next is health, primary health, quality of hospitals, and education. We had given respondents a list of 31 issues. So these are the top 10 on the voter’s mind, albeit with a restricted sample.

What political parties are offering is national security, terrorism, caste, religion, nyay, full statehood, etc. The tragedy is the media picks up only those issues which political parties and politicians highlight. They think these are vote-catching issues. Whether they are linked to the voter’s needs, desires, aspirations, are of no consequence.

There is a complete disconnect between what the voter is looking for and what the aspiring politician is offering. This disconnect is extremely serious. It leads to erosion in our democracy.

There is another disconnect. The elected representative does not owe his primary allegiance to the voter. He or she is first grateful to the ticket- giver for giving the ticket otherwise people would not have been able to vote for him or her.

How come politicians drift to such an extent?

If you have a person listed from Hyderabad air dropped to Moradabad, how do you expect this person to know what the people of Moradabad are looking for?

The ticket-giver should want the most votes?

Should. The ticket-giver wants the maximum bang for the buck which is not necessarily in the form of voters’ concerns. Voters also have no choice. This question comes up very often when people say, how do criminals get elected? All right, so political parties should not give them tickets but they still do and people vote for them. Don’t people see?

The ticket-giver should also be keen to identify the real problems and have people do something about them in the hope of constantly getting elected. So why is this ticket-giver so off the mark?

They should. But that’s not easy to do nor commonly done. The ticket-giver can’t know the pulse of the entire nation because of India’s size, diversity and so on. Also, ticket-givers are not focused on the electorate but on the candidates. They look for winnable candidates. Their primary consideration is ‘winability’. What this elusive ‘winability’ consists of is anybody’s guess. In some cases, it is large amounts of money or massive muscle power —which may mean 15 criminal cases against the person — or it is caste and community arithmetic. Or a combination of all these.

Maybe solutions to people’s problems are complex and politicians would need to be rather evolved to come up with them so they take recourse to emotive issues?

I don’t think so. Our politicians are very evolved. To my mind there is no social problem which is intractable if you have your heart and mind in the right place. Our politicians, unfortunately, have stopped thinking about people’s problems.

They are in this quagmire of winning and losing. You contest an election, you invest a certain amount of money, and you see if you can win. If you do, then first you have to recoup what you have spent. Then you have to repay your debts. And then you have to start accumulating money for the next election. If you lose, you begin counting your losses and you start from scratch. So political parties have become like corporate houses looking for a higher and higher return on investment. Governance is incidental.

Has the election become an economy by itself?  

I wouldn’t call it that. I would say it has become a charade because our elections have no connection to democracy. Every five years we fool ourselves. Like Diwali or the Kumbh Mela, we have a mela. People spend a lot of money, wear new clothes, shout slogans, and then it’s business as usual. It’s just an event. It has no relationship with the way society is governed.

I mean, elections should have an impact on how a democracy runs provided there are discussions in legislative assemblies and in Parliament. When did we last have a reasonable discussion? Decisions are made outside Parliament and then rubber stamped in Parliament. That is not democracy. It is an oligarchy by political parties.

But people do exercise their right to vote.

I ask people, where does governance come from? Universally I am told, we elect the government. Ten or 15 years ago I started doing this exercise. I talked to people across the board — children, youth, Rotary Club members, everybody would say this.  I felt very gratified. To my naïve mind it meant that democracy has got ingrained in the Indian psyche.

Then I dug a little deeper. I asked, when you go into a polling booth will you vote for who or what the government should be? After some discussion, they say, we vote for a candidate. 

Then I ask, where does the candidate come from? They say the candidate is the person to whom the party gives a ticket. Someone talks of independent candidates. I tell them the number of independent candidates getting elected has been progressively declining. You cannot become a candidate unless you get a ticket from a political party.

So what choice does a voter have? Political parties choose five or six candidates. The choice of the voter is pre-constrained by the choices made by a set of political parties. Does the so-called elected representative then have a choice in supporting or opposing a particular bill? His or her choice is completely controlled by the political party.

Where does the government come from? It comes from political parties. Are political parties democratic? If they are not, and they form the government, do we have a democracy? In a TV interview I said, hamara loktantra khokhla hain. People told me I am running down democracy. I said the pillars of our democracy are hollow.

Do you see this changing?

That’s a million-dollar question. The only way we can begin to restore democracy is if political parties can be forced to become democratic in their internal functioning. And I deliberately use the word ‘forced’ because they will not do it on their own.

 I have support from no less an institution than the Supreme Court. In its NOTA judgment the judges wrote that as more and more people use NOTA, political parties will be compelled to put up better candidates. I often tell people that the Supreme Court uses its words very carefully. They did not write that political parties will be ‘encouraged’ to put up better candidates, or ‘motivated’ to put up better candidates but that they will be ‘compelled’.

Who can compel them to be more democratic?

There are three elements in society that can have an impact if they work together by accident. They will not ever work together by design. These are — civil society, the media and the judiciary.

For most democracies is this a process that happens, willy-nilly, over time?

What is a democracy? We say we are a democracy because every five years we hold elections and we claim to have peaceful changes of government. Arre bhai, China also has elections, so do Russia and Singapore. Merely holding elections and changing governments is not democracy.

Democracy is when every citizen has a sense that he or she has a say in how society is governed. We don’t really have that. It is that ehsaas, that feeling, that I have a say in the way my country is run. That is democracy.

We should not look at countries or societies as democracies or flawed democracies. Instead, there should be something like a degree of democratisation. Some countries are higher, some lower. Countries higher up on the scale have a serious element of democratisation in the functioning of their politics.

Democracy can evolve too over a period of time. Is that a fair assumption?

One can say that. There is no formula. I also believe that each society has to find its own path. When I go abroad people ask me about Indian democracy and I reply that it’s a question of the glass being half-full or half-empty.

I have been telling you the ills of our democracy but let me tell you three things.

One, if you compare the state of democracy in India to all its neighbours in South Asia — Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan — we are miles ahead.

Secondly, from the pool of countries that got independence from colonial rule in the 1940s and 1950s there is no other country, in my view, which has had an uninterrupted run of democracy except for a two-year blip from 1975-77. We have not had a coup, an army takeover, civil war… so we are doing well as a democracy.

And third, a personal reason. The fact that an organisation like ADR has continued to exist for almost 20 years is a tribute to Indian democracy. In many other countries an organisation like ours would be finished because every single political party dislikes us. But we still exist.

In the 20 years you have been around, one of your concerns has been money power during elections. It doesn’t seem to have gotten any less.

On the contrary, it has increased. Obviously, we are not doing the right thing. The answer lies in internal democracy in the functioning of political parties and financial transparency. 

Why hasn’t that been possible?

Political parties are very clear that they want to keep their financing mechanisms under wraps. After the Right to Information (RTI) Act came, we put in an RTI to the CBDT (Central Board of Direct Tax) for copies of the tax returns of political parties. Obviously, they were denied. We placed 19 appeals in the Central Information Commission (CIC) and they were all heard together. In the final hearing 10 senior advocates representing various political parties came. Two of them had reportedly been flown in from Chennai, their determination to protect their copies of IT returns was so intense. Mercifully, the CIC said it should be given. So we got copies of their IT returns.

Then we discovered that political parties declare thousands of crores of income every year but pay zero tax. We thought this a great find. But further investigations revealed that the IT Act has a special section called 13A which gives 100 percent exemption from income tax to political parties.

We were stuck. Then we read a proviso to that Act. It said: “Provided a political party maintains its accounts and gives a statement of donations over `20,000 each to the Election Commission of India.”

We went to the EC and asked for a copy of these lists. We then had, for every political party, a list of all the donations of `20,000 each for a particular year. We summed those up and looked at the total income declared in their IT returns. We were surprised to find that donations over `20,000 came to just 25 to 30 percent of their total income. Nobody knew where 70 to 75 percent of their income came from.

We then sent RTI applications asking the political parties where this 70-75 percent comes from. They said, we are not covered by the RTI Act. We went back to the CIC. We said, you gave us permission to get IT returns, political parties should be covered by the RTI Act. The CIC said, this is not reason enough, you have to give us more data.

We spent two years filing RTI applications to various government offices to collect information indicating how much public money is being spent on political parties. We went to the Directorate of Estates and we asked how many government buildings are allotted to political parties and how much rent is being charged. We found that `450 a month was being charged as rent for a Lutyens bungalow. 

We then went to some real estate companies and asked what the market rate of these bungalows was. We took the lowest figure of not below `5 lakh per month because the bungalows were of two acres. If you subtract `450 from `5 lakh, you will know how much public money per month is being foregone.

The political party may declare an income of `1,000 crore. Normally, it should pay `300 crore as tax. So we filed around 2,000 RTI applications and found such data. And at the end of two years we presented all this to the CIC.

The CIC, in a full bench decision, declared that the six national political parties from whom we had collected data were public authorities under the RTI Act, that they should appoint their own public information officers (PIOs) in four weeks, and respond to requests for information in six weeks.

None of the six political parties appointed anybody. They refused to accept RTI applications. We went back to the CIC and complained of non-compliance. The CIC sent notices to the six  parties — BJP, Congress, NCP, BSP, CPI and CPI(M).

No response. Then the CIC sent showcause notices. No response for two years. Finally, the CIC said its order had not been challenged anywhere in any court of law for two years. Therefore, its order was final, legal and correct. Secondly, it didn't have the wherewithal to get its own order implemented. Hence, complainants could go anywhere they wanted. So we are now in the Supreme Court. The Union of India has filed an affidavit saying political parties should not be under the RTI Act.

Has any party voluntarily opted for transparency?

No, sir.

What about AAP? Do they have a PIO?

No. The point being, all political parties are without this.