When Notes Chase Votes
Why campaign spending has started posing a serious question for India’s democracy.
India began voting yesterday. TV psephologists have more or less predicted the return of a BJP-led government with BJP short of majority but not-so-short that Narendra Modi will face a leadership challenge. Only the partisan and the foolish will agree/ disagree with TV pundits right now. The minimally wise will leave predictions aside. Except one prediction – cash has won India’s elections. Much media focus has centred recently on the Election Commission’s entirely correct upbraiding of tax authorities who seem to find, by strange coincidence, dirty cash mostly when it is being handled by opposition politicians. On the face of it, this seems to be a case of pre-poll institution bending.
In terms of realpolitik, BJP may have set a precedent that may come to haunt them at some point of time. In terms of principle, there’s now a strong argument for putting tax authorities and, perhaps, enforcement authorities, too, in EC’s ambit from the time the code of conduct is announced. In terms of reality, chances of this happening are remote. No party will let go of such ‘useful’ tools. But the cash/ polls story is much bigger than EC-tax department exchange of missives or occasional cash seizures by the commission. The real story is that notes for votes have started posing a serious, almost existential question for India’s democracy.
As the analysis and data in an ET story clearly showed, 2019 general election have put paid to all fanciful talk that India’s polls will be fought with clean money. What happens usually is that currency with public – a measure of how much cash is floating around in the economy – grows sharply in the months, or the financial year, before national elections. Year-on-year growth of currency in public for 2018-19, the financial year just before 2019 polls, is 17.3%, a sharp jump from previous years in the five-year period (excluding the remonetisation/ demonetisation period). Such pre-poll bumps in cash use have happened for all recent elections. And the pre-poll bump for 2019 is among the highest in the last seven national elections.
BJP government’s electoral bond scheme was flawed from the point of view of transparency (it hid the donor’s identity in SBI records that could be accessed only by the government, which owns the bank). And for the same reason, the idea was flawed even in terms of incentivising non-cash donations – big donors fear their identity as electoral bond-buyers will be known to those in power or to others who may come to power.
Political analyst Milan Vaishnav, who co-authored with Devesh Kapur an excellent book on political funding (Cost of Democracy), has said India’s elections this time can cost up to $10 billion, much more than the 2016 US general election, which saw spending of around $6.5 billion. Another figure, from the Delhi think tank, Centre
for Media Studies, puts the estimated campaign expenditure at $8.5 billion, lower than Vaishnav’s outer limit but still considerably higher than the US election campaign spend.
So, here’s some data that will wake you up: the $19 trillion-plus American economy hosts poll spending of around $6.5 billion, and the $2.7 trillion Indian economy may host poll spending of around $10 billion. Even if you measure everything in purchasing power parity and not exchange rate terms – by PPP, India’s economy is roughly half the size of America’s – the comparison still holds as much force. There’s more shocking data. Vaishnav and Kapur’s analysis shows more than 80% of this Lok Sabha’s members declared assets worth Rs 1 crore and above. That figure is not expected to significantly change in the coming Lok Sabha.
So, 80% of 543 members of the Lok Sabha have assets above Rs 1 crore, while, as per government tax data, a mere 81,000 of 1.2 billion Indians declare incomes over Rs 1 crore. Double or treble or even quadruple the crorepati taxpayer figure, accounting for underreporting and adding asset value to income. Still, a vanishingly small proportion of Indians are worth over Rs 1 crore, while 80% of India’s MPs are in that club. Since a majority of voters are poor and the poor are far more likely to vote than the better off classes, our elections are about the poor voting for the rich who talk about the poor while spending the most money anywhere in the world for election campaigning.
Vaishnav’s $10 billion figure in rupee terms – reasonably assuming $1=Rs 70 exchange rate figure – is Rs 70,000 crore. Since 543 MPs will be elected, average campaign expenditure per Lok Sabha constituency will be a staggering Rs 129 crore. To put Rs 70,000 crore in perspective: It is almost equal to the annual expenditure of Rs 75,000 crore under BJP’s PM-Kisan income transfer scheme for small farmers, it is nearly 20% of the annual outlay of Rs 3.6 lakh crore of Congress’s hugely expansive NYAY income transfer scheme, it is more than the current Rs 60,000 crore annual expenditure on MGNREGA, it is more than the current annual oil subsidy of around Rs 38,000 crore. We can go on, but the point is clear.
What India’s politicians spend on national elections courting votes of the poor can easily fund a good welfare scheme for the poor.
Now, some may argue that since all political parties try to raise and spend as much unaccounted cash as possible, and since elections are free and fair, and since incumbents lose elections pretty frequently, the fact of extravagant amounts of dirty campaign money doesn’t by itself distort India’s electoral democracy. This is plain wrong. Distortions happen through the relationship between politicians and big donors and through gaming the financial system. These, in turn, distort policy making, mostly by complicated tweaks that few voters understand or even know about. And the media, which enthusiastically reports on any ‘big’ corruption story, pretty much ignores the corrupting element built into our election system.
Votes will be counted on May 23. Notes that chased those votes will be forgotten – again.
Courtesy: The Times of India (National)
- Upbraid (Verb): Meaning: find fault with (someone); scold. (फटकारना)
Synonyms: Admonish, Reprimand, Chastise, Chide, Reproach, Lambaste
Antonyms: Sanction, Praise, Laud, Extol, Compliment
Example: The captain upbraid his men for falling asleep.
- Seizure (Noun): Meaning: the action of capturing someone or something using force. (जब्ती)
Synonyms: Capture, Annexation, Abduction, Confiscation, Sequestration
Antonyms: Liberation, Remission, Restitution
Example: The court ordered the seizure of his assets.
- Fanciful (Adjective): Meaning: over-imaginative and unrealistic; highly ornamental or imaginative in design. (काल्पननक)
Synonyms: Imaginary, Dreamy, Fictitious, Quixotic, Ornate
Antonyms: Realistic, Factual, Tangible, Existing
Example: This is not just some fanciful theory.
- Parity (Noun): Meaning: the state or condition of being equal, especially regarding status or pay. (समानता)
Synonyms: Equality, Uniformity, Consistency, Evenness, Levelness
Antonyms: Disparity, Dissimilarity, Variation, Discrepancy
Example: The two currencies have now reached parity.
- Reasonably (Adverb): Meaning: by sensible standards of judgement; justifiably. (यथोनित)
Synonyms: Sanely, Rationally, Wisely, Judiciously
Antonyms: Foolishly, Illogically, Unjustly, Thoughtlessly
Example: He could not reasonably have foreseen the consequences.
- Stagger (Verb): Meaning: walk or move unsteadily, as if about to fall. (लड़खड़ाकर िलना); astonish or deeply shock.
Synonyms: Lurch, Reel, Sway, Teeter, Surprise, Astound
Antonyms: Steady, Unreel, Calm
Example: The unexpected blow did not stagger his resolution.
- Incumbent (Noun): Meaning: the holder of an office or post. (पदग्राही)
Synonyms: Holder, Bearer, Occupant, Functionary, Officer
Example: Incumbent judges set to keep their seats despite challenge from public defenders.
- Extravagant (Adjective): Meaning: lacking restraint in spending money or using resources; exceeding what is reasonable (अपव्ययी)
Synonyms: Spendthrift, Profligate, Lavish, Improvident, Prodigal
Antonyms: Thrifty, Frugal, Parsimonious, Prudent
Example: Waste of time is the most extravagant and costly of all expenses
- Distort (Verb): Meaning: pull or twist out of shape; give a misleading or false account or impression of. (निगाड़ना, निकृत करना)
Synonyms: Contort, Buckle, Deform, Misshape, Disfigure, Wrench
Antonyms: Straighten, Untwist, Unbend
Example: Tall buildings can distort radio signals.
- Enthusiastically (adverb): Meaning: in a way that shows intense and eager enjoyment, interest, or approval. (उत्साहपूिवक)
Synonyms: Eagerly, Warmly, Zealously, Exuberantly, Ardently, Earnestly
Antonyms: Apathetically, Coldly, Unwillingly
Example: The audience clapped enthusiastically and called for more.
Brexit: A Crisis That Resists Hasty Solutions
As the EU extends the Brexit deadline, it is still anybody’s guess if London will finally get its act together.
On Wednesday, 12 days after the U.K. had initially been due to leave the European Union (EU), Prime Minister Theresa May headed to Brussels to persuade leaders of the remaining 27 member states to grant Britain an extension that would enable Brexit to happen by June 30 at the latest. With the ultimate decision on this lying with Brussels (and the member states, each of which has the ability to veto an extension outright), it felt a far cry from the picture of a Britain “taking back control” that the government and Leave supporters had propounded in the wake of the 2016 referendum. In the end Britain’s suggested date was brushed aside as EU leaders — following an epic five-hour meeting — opted for October 31, with Britain able to leave earlier if a deal is reached.
After it became clear that the original March 29 Brexit deadline was no longer tenable, accusations over who was responsible have come thick and fast. Ms. May herself faced a backlash from MPs when she appeared to blame them for the chaos, accusing them of “political games” and “arcane political rows” that she and the public had tired of. Ironically for Ms. May, her comments were also seen as bolstering the determination of MPs to continue to block her withdrawal deal within Parliament, which has now thrice been rejected by MPs.
As with the results of the 2016 referendum, the causes of the current political crisis in Britain are manifold, though the starting point surely has to be the open-ended nature of the question put to the public: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The question, which itself was open to generous interpretation, was used as a launch pad for all sorts of arguments by the Leave campaign, ranging from the need to end free movement from the EU and immigration more widely, to having the opportunity to strike trade deals independently, to ending payments to the EU, to challenging the establishment. All these and other reasons played into the result: a Nuffield study published last year noted that immigration was the main reason that people voted to leave, followed by sovereignty, though the economy and the desire to teach politicians a lesson also played in.
The ambiguity of the question has meant that politicians across the political spectrum have been able to interpret the results to pursue pretty much any vision of Brexit. There’s Ms. May, who has put immigration controls at the heart of her vision of Brexit. This position on free movement is also adopted to a certain extent by the Labour party, to the fury of many of its supporters. However, while Ms. May has insisted on ending membership of the EU customs union to enable Britain to forge independent trade deals on goods, Labour believes remaining in part of these arrangements is the only way to enable businesses to get the tariff and hassle-free relationship with Europe they require to continue thriving, while ensuring that no hard border develops on the island of Ireland between the Republic of Ireland (the EU nation) and Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.).
Across party lines
These visions have not held across party lines, with some MPs choosing to leave their parties over their differences. While some Conservative MPs believe Ms. May’s plan to transform the relationship is excessive, there are others who have condemned it as tantamount to a betrayal, relegating Britain to “vassal” status to the EU, particularly because of the backstop arrangements for Ireland that would put the U.K. into a customs union with the EU that couldn’t be ended unilaterally were future talks to break down. Labour, on the other hand, has faced critics who believe it should be doing more to represent the 48% who voted to remain in the EU, as well as from others who have warned that fighting Brexit would amount to abandoning some of the most deprived communities in northern England which voted overwhelmingly to leave. These tensions — which have pervaded the party membership, discussion between MPs and even the cabinet and shadow cabinet — have made achieving political consensus on all sides particularly difficult.
But what has been particularly striking is the government’s refusal to compromise. It had become increasingly clear that the government’s vision of Brexit wasn’t one that would pass through Parliament — indeed, 230 MPs voted against it in January in the biggest defeat for a U.K. government in parliamentary history. Ms. May has plodded on regardless, even as some pointed out the double standards: she insisted that she should be able to bring her vote to MPs over and over again; but at the same time she robotically insisted on respecting the referendum result, despite the fact that so much had changed and so much more had become known in the past two years.
However, Ms. May is not the only one to refuse to compromise. Some Brexiteers and the Conservative party’s parliamentary ally, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, have dug in. The DUP’s intransigence will be particularly painful for Ms. May, whose impetuous decision to call a snap general election in 2017 gave them the crucial powerful hand over Brexit decisions. Indeed, had that election not been called, it is quite possible that the government would not have struggled with the numbers in getting its deal through, and Brexit could have happened on the scheduled date.
Advocates of a public vote too have not covered themselves in glory. The Independent Group of MPs who left the Conservative and Labour parties earlier this year courted criticism when they failed to help push the customs union and other softer options over the line in a series of indicative votes recently. Had they done so, MPs could have got the majority they needed for a road ahead to show that there was an alternative road to Ms. May’s, but instead they have continued to cling to the hope of either revocation or a public confirmatory vote.
It has been particularly unfortunate for the U.K. that given the fundamental issues that were apparent from the start of the Brexit process that Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union was triggered in March 2017 well before the type of Brexit they wanted to pursue had been agreed upon. This has forced the debate to happen against the backdrop of a deadline and cliff–edge that has made it possible for the government to threaten, “it’s our deal or no deal”, or “it’s our deal or a long delay”, making it more into a game of chicken than a country trying to forge the right road ahead. For this Parliament itself bears much responsibility, voting overwhelmingly to trigger the exit process back in 2017 with pretty much nothing to go on.
If the Brexit process was Britain’s first opportunity to flout its prowess as a rational, independent trading nation, capable of holding its own on the global stage, it is a chance that has so far been missed by miles and the sense of frustration among EU leaders has been palpable. The October 31 deadline has given Britain time to find the “best possible solution,” Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said, urging Britain to “not waste this time”. Whether Britain manages to do so and finally comes up with a solution acceptable to Parliament and the EU remains to be seen.
Courtesy: The Hindu (International)
- Propound (Verb): Meaning: put forward (an idea, theory, or point of view) for consideration by others. (प्रस्तावित करना)
Synonyms: Offer, Present, Postulate, Hypothesize, Proffer, Tender
Antonyms: Withdraw, Withhold, Take Back
Example: The theory of natural selection was first propounded by Charles Darwin.
- Manifold (Adjective): Meaning: having many different forms or elements. (विविध)
Synonyms: Numerous, Legion, Multifarious, Miscellaneous
Antonyms: Sole, Unique, Individual, Unvaried
Example: The City Council has a manifold plan to beautify the city.
- Tenable (Adjective): Meaning: able to be maintained or defended against attack or objection. (तककसंगत, मुनावसब)
Synonyms: Rational, Plausible, Viable, Reasonable, Justifiable, Sustainable
Antonyms: Indefensible, Untenable, Groundless, Illogical, Absurd
Example: His theory is no longer tenable in light of the recent discoveries.
- Arcane (Adjective): Meaning: understood by few; mysterious or secret. (रहस्य का)
Synonyms: Esoteric, Recondite, Cryptic, Delphic, Obscure
Antonyms: Exoteric, Familiar, Shallow
Example: This argument may seem arcane to those not closely involved in the world of finance.
- Fury (Noun): Meaning: wild or violent anger; violence in an action or a natural phenomenon. (रोष, प्रकोप)
Synonyms: Rage, Wrath, Spleen, Savagery, Frenzy, Umbrage, Exasperation, Choler
Antonyms: Calmness, Mildness, Delight, Serenity
Example: He gritted his teeth in silent fury.
- Hassle (Noun): Meaning: irritating inconvenience. (परेशानी); a disagreement or quarrel.
Synonyms: Bother, Annoyance, Nuisance, Fuss, Struggle, Scuffle
Antonyms: Calmness, Concur, Tranquility, Harmony, Consent
Example: She got the computer set up with no hassle at all.
- Tantamount (Adjective): Meaning: equivalent in seriousness to; virtually the same as. (समान)
Synonyms: Identical, Alike, Commensurate, Indistinguishable, Equipollent, Coequal,
Antonyms: Different, Dissimilar, Unlike
Example: The King’s request was tantamount to a command.
- Plod (Verb): Meaning: walk doggedly and slowly with heavy steps. (थके क़दमों से चलना); work slowly and perseveringly at a dull task. (धीरे-धीरे काम करना)
Synonyms: Trudge, Clump, Stomp, Tramp, Lumber, Slog, Sprauchle
Antonyms: Glide, Laze, Speed, Gallop
Example: Aircraft production continued to plod along at an agonizingly slow pace.
- Impetuous (Adjective): Meaning: acting or done quickly and without thought or care. (अवििेकी, जल्दबाजी)
Synonyms: Impulsive, Reckless, Foolhardy, Imprudent, Harum-Scarum, Devil-May-Care
Antonyms: Cautious, Thoughtful, Considerate, Wise
Example: It would be foolish and impetuous to resign over such a small matter.
- Flout (Verb): Meaning: openly disregard (a rule, law or convention); mock. (अिज्ञा, उपहास)
Synonyms: Defy, Violate, Infringe, Contravene, Breach
Antonyms: Comply, Abide By, Adhere To, Obey, Regard
Example: Many motorcyclists flout the law by not wearing helmets.