Book Review- ‘Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India’ is how corrosive power of political finance works in Indian elections

The book is the most compelling, exhaustive, innovative, riveting and perhaps challenging study of the ‘opaque and enigmatic ways’ in which the corrosive power of political finance in Indian elections works.

Costs of Democracy Political Finance in India, Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India book review,  Indian elections, political finance, 
A study of the ‘opaque & enigmatic ways’ in which corrosive power of political finance works in Indian elections

Have you ever wondered about the cost of democracy, or more precisely, the price of financing electoral democracies in general and Indian democracy specifically? Most of us instantly agree that democracy has no price, but it doesn’t come cheap; it has a huge operating cost. And this cost is tremendous and ballooning across the world. The hauntingly, immortal phrase of American politician and democratic power broker Jesse ‘Big Daddy’ Unruh, who once said that “money is the mother’s milk of politics”, states only the partial and partisan truth of the cost of democracy.

With a poker-faced expression, Unruh deliberately and blithely injected mother’s milk as sacred poison into the body politic. Don’t tell me you are still surprised why Americans elected Donald Trump, the wealthiest man ever elected president? And if this does not shock you, then consider the price tag for the 2016 American presidential and congressional elections combined—it was estimated to be $6.5 billion, according to a campaign finance watchdog. Also, think of the price tag for elections in India.

Total poll-related spending in the 2014 elections was estimated to be $5 billion, according to a study by the Center for Media Studies. Looks like Indian democracy is set to become a democratic plutocracy, or a perfect ‘Billionaire Raj’, in the words of author James Crabtree. True, there is no politics without money, but it is equally true and also frightening that money in excess can erode democratic politics. “Unfortunately, the role of money in politics has assumed pernicious dimensions and it is no consolation that India is not alone in facing this problem,” warns former chief election commissioner of India SY Quraishi in his illuminating blurb for Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India, edited by leading political scientists Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav.

For a political scientist presently engaged with a TISS-ECI study on money power in Indian elections, the book is the most compelling, exhaustive, innovative, riveting and perhaps challenging study of the ‘opaque and enigmatic ways’ in which the corrosive power of political finance in Indian elections works. The analytical ease of methodological hybridity and enlightening foresight with which the book portrays the bitter truths of the pernicious effects of money power in Indian electoral democracy is fantastic, and a rare contribution to broader comparative literature on campaign finance and electoral reforms.

For generation-next, the collection of seven essays by a distinguished team of senior and young researchers from political science, anthropology and public policy is an ideal primer for the sub-field of electoral finance in election studies, or what Harvard political scientist Pippa Noris calls ‘electoral integrity’. Editors Kapur and Vaishnav, and chapter contributors Eswaran Sridharan, Neelanjan Sircar, Simon Chauchard and others acknowledge the ‘deepening of democracy’ thesis in India and agree that the poor and lower castes are more committed to democracy than the ultra-rich, and they turn out to vote in greater numbers than elsewhere.

For poor and lower castes, every election means a little more power (real or symbolic). But at what cost? Cost here is defined in the context of broader impacts money can have on ‘selection effect’ on the pool of candidates, perverse effects on public policy, growing concentration of wealth, deepening links between money and political power and the moral and normative concerns about democracy. Given the poor accountability, weak or partial transparency, lack of well-enforced disclosure norms, vast size of ‘black money’, limits of AAP model of campaign finance, dynastic political leaders, mafia politicians and corporates and builders with illicit campaign finance links in India, the ‘costs of democracy’, little naggingly and also unavoidably, raise the heckles of theorists of ‘democracy upsurge’ for a wider debate on the quality of democracy.

In a brilliant chapter on Political Finance in a Developing Democracy, Sridharan and Vaishnav note the incremental improvements in transparency and disclosure laws, but chillingly remind us about the failure of regulation of political parties due to ‘regulatory capture’ by political parties themselves. Examining granular data on more than 20,000 parliamentary candidates between 2004 and 2014 for “the role of personal wealth in election outcomes”, Sircar argues that a candidate’s liquid wealth has a strong positive impact on his or her election outcome.

No puzzle why parties prefers wealthy candidates. In a novel, and also intuitive, empirical research analysis of the staggered calendar of state elections and longitudinal data on cement consumption, Kapur and Vaishnav find that the consumption of cement in the construction sector (mostly funded from illegal and unofficial income of politicians) significantly declines during election time because builders channel cash into political activities of their patron-politicians. In a radical analysis, Michael Collins explores Vidhuthalai Katchi (VCK), a Dalit party in Tamil Nadu, to reveal that the success of the VCK depends on the association with larger, better-financed regional parties. This busts the myth that Dalit or lower-caste parties don’t require superior political finance.

In a methodologically odd comparative analysis of Mumbai and Bihar, Bjorkman and Witsoe insightfully argue that money plays a role in ‘gift-giving’ rather than ‘vote-buying’. Rather than buying votes per se, cash distribution signals a leader’s access to broader network of political influence. In an astonishingly fresh and richly-layered ethnographic analysis of cash-giving in Mumbai, Simon Chauchard argues that campaigns are becoming more expensive not due to gift-giving alone, but due to the fact that “campaigns are more ambitious, professional and competitive”. Expect more Cambridge Analytica scandals in future.

Using a survey in three north Indian states across the different tiers of a federal election, state assemblies and also local elected bodies, Jennifer Bussell finds that black money is the modal response for parliamentary and assembly-level elections, whereas lower-level politicians rely on their own pocket books. By the time you reach the concluding chapter, you realise the book is also a survival tale, a heroic struggle to stay alive in the game of democracy. And this will definitely take you by surprise. While insightfully focusing on policy reforms, Kapur, Sridharan and Vaishnav wittingly or unwittingly express over-the-top neo-conservatives’ fears about ‘elections, elections everywhere’ in India.

The antidote to perpetual democracy is not less or infrequent democracy. With more than three million representatives, Indian politics might have become more expensive, more family-centric and more tainted with mafia politicians, but it still rewards ‘the clever, gifted and ambitious poor’. Any doubts? To conclude, if you are a minimalist and on a no-frills hunt for saving some bucks on the world’s largest democracy extravaganza in the 2019 elections, keep this box of dark and milk chocolates in your bag—this will indeed help reduce your hunger for costly and frequent elections!

Ashwani Kumar is a professor and senior fellow of Indian Council of Social Science Research at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and also author of Community Warriors

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