Political parties are enshrined in our Constitution as approved, and, indeed, privileged, entities. However, over the past 70 years, the idealism of the Constitution has been tattered by the rough and tumble of real politics, and today, political parties do little to serve the people and have evolved into vessels of corruption. It takes money to run a party organisation and while all parties get donations—tax-free, incidentally—the amounts they spend are generally dozens of times of what they report as income from donations and “other sources”. The BJP, for instance, which tom-toms that it is a non-corrupt party, reported an income of Rs 970 crore in 2014-15, the year of the Parliamentary election; even a deaf, dumb and blind person knows that they spent easily 20 times that on the election alone. To forestall “but the Congress…” objections, I fully agree that the above applies to all political parties—I simply use the BJP as an example because of all the noise it makes about being non-corrupt.
Clearly, all its high-noise policies to supposedly eliminate black money are hogwash. The AAP claims that it only spends what it is able to raise and that all its donations are recorded and available on-line; while this may be true, it is impossible to know this for sure unless there is a detailed independent audit of its accounts, as there should be of all political parties. ICAI, at the request of the Election Commission, had (in 2012) put together a “guidance note” on the audit of political parties, and political parties do submit their audited accounts to the EC, albeit usually very late. But the audits, as currently conducted, are hardly worth the paper they are printed on.
Parliament needs to mandate the EC to select auditors—probably international firms, to limit political interference—to conduct stringent audits to ensure that this huge window of corruption is closed. But, of course, Parliament is not interested. The only issues on which all political parties come together as one are (a) bringing political parties under the RTI (NO), (ii) increasing salaries for elected representatives (YES), and (iii) having international firms audit political parties’ accounts (NO). What is, perhaps, worse than the corruption that political parties create is that they regularly subvert good policies resulting in huge costs to the nation. For example, amidst much fanfare, the government has recently succeeded in passing GST. While it has glitches and will take time to come to full value, I, for one, believe it is a great step.
However, GST should have been passed 10 years ago, when it was first mooted by the previous government, but the BJP and others, which were in opposition at the time, blocked it from coming to reality. This has set the country back significantly. If we assume that GST (once it is working right) adds, say, 1.5% to per capita GDP growth, our GDP/capita in 2016, which was $1,709, would have been nearly 12% higher at $ 1,900. This difference works out to nearly Rs 20 lakh crore; this is three times the total NPAs in the banking system right now.
The responsibility for this loss must rest with BJP (and other then-in-opposition) MPs, who prevented this policy from coming to fruition 10 years ago, even though, as is apparent, they actually believed it would be good for the country. Clearly, their primary allegiance was to their party’s positioning rather than, as they had sworn, to the nation. Indeed, in the tu-tu-mein-mein that passes for political discourse today, there are few MPs from any party that are able to come out from the rigid demands of their parties and focus on the real issues—that is the tragedy that Indian politics has become.
To be sure, this problem is not limited to India—the failure of US democracy which has resulted in Trump coming to power is largely because both major parties were each focused on ensuring that they retain or enhance their positioning. To my mind, the deplorable state of politics globally suggests that a structural change is in the offing—it is always darkest before dawn. Given that venal parties are the obvious villains, perhaps we will see a wave of independent political candidates take the field in different countries across the world, as recently happened in France.
The seething dissatisfaction in India today with not just the current government but also most alternatives suggests that it would be no real surprise to see hundreds, if not thousands, of independent candidates run for the Lok Sabha in 2019. Hopefully, most of these would be young, fresh and super-hip users of social media. Even if just 15 or 20 of them were to win and were to keep their constituencies engaged, it could set the stage for a real revolution towards a genuinely representative and effective Parliament.
Jamal Meclai is a CEO of Mecklai Financial