“The voter [in India] is subject to the law of the two ‘Ms’, money and muscle.”
– Christophe Jaffrelot (2002)
I sometimes wonder whether we can ever hope to realise the aspirations of our freedom fighters, who sacrificed so much to gain independence from colonial rule. Sadly, foreign domination has been replaced in some measure by our home grown oligarchy that possesses both “money power” and “muscle power”.
– Navin B Chawla, 16th Chief Election Commissioner (2017)
The 17th Lok Sabha elections were not only a resounding victory for the BJP but a victory for money and muscle power, with 43% (233) of elected MPs having declared criminal cases against them (an increase of 44% since 2009), 88% (475) MPs having assets worth Rs. 1 crore and more, and the average assets per winner being Rs 20.93 crore. Crime and money are seen ever so strongly linked with electoral success. According to ADR analysis, a candidate facing criminal charges had 15.5% chances of winning Lok Sabha 2019 elections against a 4.7% chance for a clean candidate. Speaking of winning based on assets, there were 21% chances of winning for crorepati candidates contesting elections against a 1% chance of candidates with assets below Rs 1 crore. This is the grim reality of world’s largest elections, popularly referred as the dance of democracy. One may then ask, ‘dance to whose tune?’
According to a Centre for Media Studies (CMS) study, a whopping Rs 55,000-60,000 crore is estimated to have been spent during the 2019 Parliamentary elections, making them the costliest elections ever. 40% or Rs 24,000 crore have been spent by candidates while parties spent an estimated Rs 20,000 crore (35%). On further analysis, we see that nearly Rs 100 crore were spent per Lok Sabha constituency which, on an average, comes down to Rs 700 per voter (India has approximately 900 million eligible voters).
Throughout the election campaign, media frequently reported about instances of money being spent and distributed to bribe voters. The Election Commission of India (ECI), beginning March 26, 2019, published seizure reports highlighting the amount of cash, liquor, drug/narcotics, precious metals, freebies etc. seized during the campaigning period each day. The total seizure reported by the ECI at the end of elections was a monstrous Rs 3475.76 crore (in contrast to Rs 299.943 crore seized in 2014 elections) with drugs/narcotics topping the list at Rs 1279.90 crore followed by precious metals (gold etc.) at Rs 987.11 crore. 10%-12% voters admitted receiving cash for votes, another two-third acknowledged that voters around them were also bribed. A considerable amount of the total poll expenditure is unaccounted cash which remains outside the purview of the formal system.
Moreover, as political strategizing and campaigning continues to become more sophisticated and competitive, we see crores being spent on political advertising, especially on social media, making it difficult to monitor the indirect expenditure with precision. These elections also witnessed the highest ever anonymous funding (through Electoral Bonds) in the months preceding the general elections; March and April 2019 accounted for purchase of bonds worth Rs 3622 crore – 62% of the total bonds purchased till date and 2.5 times the amount purchased in earlier phases.
While money has definitely grown in prominence, crime is not far behind. As elections grow costlier, so does the demand for wealthy candidates, and accompanying these candidates, are often their dubious reputations blurring the lines between the politician and the criminal. Despite the Supreme Court judgment of 2018 that mandated political parties and candidates to declare the criminal antecedents of every contesting candidate in print and electronic media, at least three times after filing the nomination, 159 MPs with declared serious criminal charges (an increase of 109% since 2009) have been elected to the 17th Lok Sabha.
The reality of tainted candidates fighting for political power is expansive across party lines. This was also true for elections this year. BJP and INC fielded 175 (40%) and 164 (39%) candidates with declared criminal cases respectively, while the proportion of such candidates fielded by CPI (M) and NCP was at 58% and 50% respectively. ADR reports define constituencies which have 3 or more candidates with criminal cases contesting elections as ‘Red Alert constituencies’. Interestingly, there were 265 (49%) such constituencies during Parliamentary elections 2019.
Evidently, crime and money remain the indomitable winners that continue to enjoy stranglehold on India’s electoral politics and solicit immediate attention. In the light of the above, it is very critical for an Indian voter to reflect upon the factors behind the continuing victory of the two ‘Ms’ and how their ever increasing role damages the democratic integrity of our elections. It is important to examine how sturdily these factors will continue to dominate in future.