(From left) Samhita Arni, Prof Sandeep Shastri, Chandan Gowda, and BS Murthy, during their panel discussion at Express Dialogues - a Mini Conclave, in Bengaluru recently
(From left) Samhita Arni, Prof Sandeep Shastri, Chandan Gowda, and BS Murthy, during their panel discussion at Express Dialogues - a Mini Conclave, in Bengaluru recentlyPhoto| Vinod Kumar T

Express Dialogues | Independent regulatory body, transparency must for funding parties: Prof Sandeep Shashtri

There should be transparency and accountability in the finances of political parties, with their accounts subject to public audit.

As part of the Express Dialogues - a Mini Conclave, Chandan Gowda, Writer-Academician, Prof Sandeep Shastri, Director Academics, NITTE Education Trust and National Coordinator, Lokniti Network, BS Murthy, Political Analyst, and Samhita Arni, Writer, were in conversation with Assistant Resident Editor Ramu Patil and Political Editor Bansy Kalappa, on “Dynamics of India’s Socio-Political Scene”.

Excerpts…

Ramu Patil: Do we see a narrative across India compared to earlier elections? Also, BJP keeps talking about 370-400 seats. Where are these numbers coming from?

Sandeep Shastri: 2014 saw BJP and NDA concentrating on North, Central and West India and in 2019, they had a 87% strike rate in this region. The focus expanded in 2019 to East and North East India and got 18-25 seats, which resulted in winning 305 seats. This time, the BJP sees the South as the region where they want to expand their presence. If they are looking to go beyond 305, that would be very difficult if they don’t get seats in the South. They have maxed out in the North, and are now looking for the remaining 16 seats out of 80 in UP, 11 in Punjab and seven in Maharashtra. These seats are not in BJP’s favour. They have a challenge in these seats and that is why they are looking southwards. If you ask me if there is a national narrative being played for the BJP, they have a national narrative that they have a national leader who heads the campaign. Whereas the opposition is seeking a narrative which varies from state to state because a lot of them are state-based parties. As of now, the opposition has not fallen into the trap of a leadership contest. A common point the ruling party makes is we have a leader, who is your leader? From the opposition angle, that is a wise strategy and if you respond to it, then the battle is lost even before it begins.

Ramu Patil: How is the I.N.D.I.A alliance going to perform in South India? Do you think BJP will be able to make inroads in other southern states?

Chandan Gowda: There was a survey that said BJP will not win even a single seat in Tamil Nadu. Imagine the amount of attention it has got. We saw images of Modi with Kamban Ramayana being read. He did Sengol in Parliament. The determination to get into these states is high. The publicity was bigger, but still, people thought the BJP would not get a single seat in TN. In Telangana, they may get a few. In Andhra Pradesh, they have tied up with Chandrababu Naidu and experts will opine better on how BJP also can make a difference. In Kerala, they will get zero. In Karnataka, it is not sure they can repeat the 25 seats like in the past.

Sandeep Shastri: They (BJP) have one strategy for Telangana and one for Karnataka. In Karnataka, it is to retain the last-time’s figures, which is a 100 percent strike rate. They face a challenge to redo what they did last time. For Congress, if they get more than one seat, it is a better performance. Given the fact that guarantees the government is talking about, at the end of the day, it is the perception that matters. It depends on how the voters look at the guarantees and do they see them as transforming their lives. On the other hand, in Telangana, I guess Congress would do better than in Karnataka, because the victory there is more recent. The BJP is looking for about five seats here. The BJP is looking at 2047 in a long-term plan. What the BJP is doing in Tamil Nadu is first becoming the principal opposition to DMK and pushing aside AIADMK. I won’t be surprised if there are one or two victories in Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, it is difficult to break the LDF and UDF stronghold and the BJP is just looking for a ‘toe hold’. I will not be surprised by one of two wins. The aim is to weaken UDF and take the challenge later directly with LDF, this is their strategy across the country. Bansy Kalappa: India has the largest youth population in the world. Are they getting adequate and accurate information to make an informed choice or is a narrative driving their decisions?

Samhita Arni: I am really impressed by the kind of knowledge that’s come out from the youth in India today. Extremely smart, extremely sharp, far sharper than their parents, often. The youth are incredibly exposed. They are far more aware and emotionally intelligent.

Bansy Kalappa: Are the fundamentals of the nation changing due to the ongoing nature of ideology-based politics?

Samhita Arni: I see much more agitation actually building up. In the next five years, it is going to be more of a conflict just not about ideology but between ideology and freedom of choice. Sandeep Shastri: I think when it comes to voting and not voting, we have seen this clear pattern unlike in the West. The poorer and the less educated you are and the lesser the social category you belong to, then you are more likely to vote.

Chandan Gowda: The poor are more interested in India’s democracy. They are interested in voting, and they deeply care about voting, and why that is needs understanding. The reason why the middle-class does not vote is that there is no tangible difference. They already have existing privileges. Ramu Patil: State Governments are approaching the Supreme Court seeking direction to Centre to release drought relief funds and on tax devolution. There are many such instances. Is federalism under stress? Chandan Gowda: There are rules. If there’s a drought, a drought relief thing should come out automatically, and it should be beyond party interventions.

Sandeep Shastri: I will make three points on this. First, when the recent debate broke out between the CM and the Union Finance Minister, I thought both were right in what they were saying. The CM was right in saying that being a state which contributes so much to the national revenues we are not getting back our due share. The Union minister was right when she said we don’t control that. What she meant is the previous finance commission and the methodology that they adopted for the distribution of revenues. Generally, the finance commission recommendations are in principle accepted by the government and therefore Nirmala Sitharam was right in saying this was not under our control and the CM was also right in saying that we didn’t get what is due to us. So I think now the pressure needs to be built up on the new finance commission to have a right methodology for this distribution to happen. Secondly, I have found that complaining on this issue does not have too much electoral significance. The third factor is in some ways, what the South is talking about is not so much about not getting what is our right but about who dominates politics of this country. It’s more a symptom of that development and I think there is something bigger waiting for us two years from now when the next census happens and post delimitation. South India would lose 30 seats and all those seats would go to the North. BS Murthy: What is discretionary today is more a strategic approach they take. It should basically be a right of the state to get the funds, whether it is floods or any other natural calamities.

Bansy Kalappa: What are your thoughts on electoral bonds?

BS Murthy: There’s no denying the straightforward nature of electoral bonds. It appears to be a system where contributions are made annually, resembling a corporate transaction more than a traditional political donation. From the data, it seems like a case of “give money, state your demand”. It’s my personal conclusion that if you want something done by the government, you present it with an electoral bond. This system, while finely tuned, appears to foster a corrupt environment. Despite the Supreme Court’s involvement, it’s evident that the issue remains unresolved. Overall, electoral bonds seem to facilitate a clear quid pro quo dynamic, with little room for alternative interpretations.

Chandan Gowda: Given the current state of affairs, the levels of secrecy provided by electoral bonds seem to offer reassurance to both the donor and the political party. The fact that these contributions don’t need to be disclosed as part of the audit structure raises questions about the intentions behind such a scheme. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this system may have been devised to accommodate certain interests. In a country where gray areas are inherent, running a business without engaging in dubious practices seems implausible. It’s no surprise that many individuals resort to less-transparent means to generate wealth. With evidence against each instance of malpractice, one could argue that the electoral bond system goes beyond mere quid pro quo dynamics. You can’t simply brush this off. It’s remarkably accurate in exposing wrongdoing. While they may have hoped to escape scrutiny, the real question is whether this revelation will have the damaging impact everyone anticipates. It seems to be just another in a series of scandals. Despite what leaders like Rahul Gandhi may say, the crucial question is whether it’s generating genuine resentment and anger among the public.

Sandeep Shashtri: I believe that while there should be a mechanism for funding political parties, if electoral bonds are to continue in the future, there must be an independent regulator overseeing the entire bond scheme. Clear rules should be established regarding the transfer of funds, as we’ve witnessed instances where new companies were created solely for making these donations. Companies should be required to provide annual account statements demonstrating certain profits, from which they can allocate funds for electoral bonds. Additionally, there should be transparency and accountability in the finances of political parties, with their accounts subject to public audit. Parties should disclose their receipt of funds from the electoral bond scheme and provide details on how these contributions were utilised. Looking at the developments surrounding electoral bonds, there’s indeed growing disclosure shedding light on the motivations behind bond purchases and recipients. However, it seems that despite media attention, these revelations are often forgotten quickly. In our increasingly polarised society, supporters of a particular party tend to find ways to justify their party’s receipt of electoral bonds, regardless of the circumstances.

FROM THE AUDIENCE

TNIE/TMS Editor Santwana Bhattacharya: How much of the level playing field is skewed because of the electoral bonds? Though it has been scrapped, but not in retrospect, what is going to be its immediate impact on the elections and do you feel that it has somehow worked its way in the election narrative somewhere in terms of impact in the minds of the voters?

BN Murthy: In terms of level playing field, there is no level playing field today. There is one party-A which has 60- 70% of the resources, and the rest of India has 30%. Practically, this will continue for the next 1-2 elections as one party is sitting with the value of the money which the other party is finding it difficult to raise.

Chandan Gowda: One good thing is that the United States made funding transparent and the American government has rationalised it. It has ensured that there is no narrative and is committed to a certain capitalist order. There is no right wing and others.

Santwana Bhattacharya: What are the alternatives or is this the first election where so many questions are being raised and will a system of cleansing happen any which way?

Chandan Gowda: I was saying that making money transparent is not the solution to electoral bonds. The solution is how to curb election expenditure. We have a ceiling which is actually a farce. No one abides by it. We need a discussion on this. Unless election expenditures are curbed, the barriers will not go away to truly talented politicians who want to contest independently. Right now, the question of youth contesting elections does not emerge unless you are a part of the family system.

Sandeep Shastri: I think state funding of elections is a very idealistic solution. But the challenge is how do you prevent candidates from access to funds. That’s why I go back to my point of black money. Unless that access point is dealt with, whatever you do to curb expenditure may not be effective. What former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan did was great. He tried to control visible expenditure. But did it really stop malpractice? I don’t think so. What could not be tapped, documented or controlled increased subsequently. We need to look at the larger picture.

(The complete discussion can be watched on TNIE Videos YouTube channel)

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