Prime minister Narendra Modi has done well to ask Parliament to discuss the issue of funding of elections since it is this that is at the core of corruption in the country. If political parties didn’t need to spends thousands of crore on each Lok Sabha election and more for all the assembly elections in various states—and have enough money to keep the cadres well-funded in the interim period—the need for corruption will reduce considerably. A R70-lakh limit for spending in big Parliamentary election constituencies does exist to check election spending even today, but this is rendered useless by the fact that there is no limit on what a party can spend on any candidate’s constituency. State funding, which the prime minister has asked MPs to debate, is a tricky option—only two states in the US do this—since it is not clear how much independents are to get or whether regional parties are to get what national parties do. But even if this hurdle could be dealt with, the issue is whether any political party would accept, say, a R1-crore cap on each candidate’s expenses, including that by the party? If parties are willing to do that—and to disclose their funding, the bulk of which comes from anonymous sources—a large part of the problem of unbridled expenditure during elections will have been dealt with. The issue of state-funding, which is a lot more difficult, and acrimonious, can be dealt with a few years down the line—posing the question as one of state-funding vs status-quo will ensure the debate will be rancorous with nothing concrete emerging from it.
Holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, as is suggested, is a good idea, indeed that was the practice in the first few elections in independent India—the practice got disrupted when assemblies got dissolved prematurely. A sensible way out has been suggested—if an assembly is dissolved after three years, say, the new CM will be in power for just two years. Not doing this, as a discussion paper circulated points out, means that many months of productive government work are stopped due to the electoral code of conduct—in 2014, a total of seven months was lost across the country due to this. Political parties, though, will not agree to this since the view is that national-level considerations will weigh in on even assembly elections—so, if a Modi sweeps the national polls, he will also sweep them in West Bengal or Odisha. There are exceptions since it has happened that national elections and assembly elections have gone different ways when both have been held simultaneously. Right now, though, while simultaneous elections would be nice, the bigger challenge is to clean up election spending and political donations—mixing up too many issues will ensure no serious progress is made on the main issue.