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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 38 September 16, 2023

A Tale of Two Prime Ministerial Candidates | Gopal Krishna

Saturday 16 September 2023


Lessons not learnt from failure to craft an ideological coalition in 2014 and 2019 

"Humans are more often bribed by their loyalties and ambitions than by money" —Justice Robert H Jackson in the United States versus Wunderlich

The insights from South America inform us that there are at least two kinds of Opposition voices — one is carnivorous and the other is herbivorous. The insights from South Asia suggest that ruling parties too can be classified into these two categories. History shows that both get tamed one way or the other by the donors through State power, but records reveal who remained a dissenting voice and a voice of the people amidst all the structural compulsions engineered by limitless anonymous donors. The temptation to readily fall prey to lazy binaries and dualities makes one miss myriad layers of opposition in global politics as well as local politics.

The parochialism and myopia of opposition parties resulted in their earth-shaking defeat in the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections. If they remain hostage to pre-existing language which is caught in a time warp, one is left with the luxury of post-result analysis. The continued indecision, delay, procrastination, communication failure, unconvincing pro-people narrative and trust deficit among opposition parties shows that they have failed to internalise the insights from the landslide victory of the ruling parties in parliamentary elections.

Having witnessed the coalition-building efforts since the mid-1970s, Nitish Kumar has been making efforts to build a coalition with the Congress party at least since early 2014 by publicly disassociating himself from carnivorous elements of his coalition without success.

In March 2013, addressing the ‘Adhikar’ rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, he linked his demand for special status to Bihar with a new political equation after the 2014 elections. Had Congress party promised the special status to Bihar, JD-U would have joined it. Special status for Bihar has been an issue since 2006. It was the JD-U’s main promise in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the 2010 assembly polls, and then the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2015 assembly polls. The NDA government did not fulfil its promise of special status to the state during the 2014 Lok Sabha poll campaign. The JD-U had raised the issue at the Inter-State Council meeting in Delhi in July 2016. In May 2017, he sought special status and assistance for Bihar in a three-page letter submitted to the prime minister. In 2019, the JD-U remained part of NDA but decided against joining the NDA government because its proposal for proportionate representation in the government did not get a positive response. The promises made by the ruling national parties remind one of what British parliamentarian Edmund Burke said in December 1783 about the East India Company: “The Company has never made a treaty which they have not broken.”

Prior to this at an NDA rally in Darbhanga on April 25, 2019, Nitish Kumar refused to join the chorus of political slogan by NDA’s prime ministerial candidate. The country witnessed the spectacle of an uneasy partnership. In August 2022, JD-U left NDA once again and formed a coalition government with RJD, Congress and Left parties. In June 2015, RJD, Left parties and Congress joined hands with the JD(U) prior to the election. Prashant Kishor played a strategic role in the coalition’s victory in November 2015. In July 2017, JD-U was compelled by the use of central agencies as a political weapon weapon amidst media trial on the issue of allegations of corruption against RJD leaders to rejoin NDA in a hurry. It is noteworthy that both Congress and JD-U has been victims of NDA’s successful attempt at luring their legislators in several states. At present JD-U has 16 MPs and Congress has 51 MPs in the Lok Sabha.

Ahead of 2024 parliamentary elections, the effort of the national leaders of 28 parties like Nitish Kumar, Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Mallikarjun Kharge, Sharad Pawar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal, Akhilesh Yadav, M.K. Stalin, Sitaram Yechury, Hemant Soren and Dipankar Bhattacharya to forge a robust ideological coalition is still in its infancy. The common minimum program of the INDIA alliance is nowhere in sight. The key national leaders do not seem to have learnt lessons from their failure to craft an idelogical coalition during the last two parliamentary elections. Both in 2014 and 2019, the possibility of alliance of the opposition parties became hostage to the ambition of Nitish Kumar and Rahul Gandhi, the two prime ministerial candidates since 2014. It is apparent that the situation remains the same as of now.

After united opposition’s continued demand for a probe into the disclosures by Hindenburg Research, the opposition unity initiative by Nitish Kumar and Rahul Gandhi began to capture public imagination. But apparent communication gap between the two leaders has arrested the growth of INDIA alliance.

Ahead of the upcoming parliamentary election all eyes will be on Nitish Kumar and Rahul Gandhi, two of the tallest leaders of contemporary India. The depth of the partnership of both the Yatris who have undertaken journey across the state and the country as part of their struggles will deterime the fate of the 2014 elections. In the last 18 years, the former has undertaken 17 Yatra including Nyaay Yatra (2005), Vikas Yatra (2009), Vishwash Yatra (2010), Sewa Yatra (2011), Adhikar Yatra (2012), Sankalp Yatra (2014), Nischay Yatra (2017-18), Jal-Jiwan-Hariyali Yatra (2019), SamajSudhaar Yatra (2021) and Samadhan Yatra (2023) within Bihar. The latter has undertaken Bharat Jodo Yatra (unify India journey) from Kanyakumari to reach Kashmir during September 2022-January 2023 covering 4,080 kilometres across 12 states and two union territories. The partnership between these two Yatris will bear fruit only if they can discuss their prime ministerial ambitions in light of the electoral outcome of 2014 and 2019.

Nitish Kumar has been in politics since 1974. He became a MLA in 1985. He was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1989, 1991, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2004 and became a union minister on seven occasions wherein he handled ministries of agriculture, railway and surface transport. Rahul Gandhi, the former President of Indian National Congress has been in Lok Sabha from 2004 to 2023. He has been part of parliamentary committees on Home Affairs, Human Resource Development, Rural Development, External Affairs, Finance and Corporate Affairs and Defence. His electoral campaign has ensured that India National Congress is in power in the states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, and Karnataka. His party is part of the coalition governments in Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Bihar.

Almost all the key national leaders have joined hands to defend the provisions of the Indian Constitution from anonymous and limitless electoral financing by the domestic and foreign entities. In such a backdrop, it is revealing to recall what Nitish Kumar said on the resolution for eradication of corruption on August 14, 1997 in the Lok Sabha. He said, “Our country is based on democracy, therefore, the expenditure of democratic institution on election should be borne by Government. Government means public funding. The government should bear all expenditure. No candidate should spend even a single paisa from his own pocket.” He added, “The political parties have to think as to what kind of system they desire to have in the country. They have to decide whether the politics of the country would be run by the donation given by the people or by the anti-social elements....there should be provision of State funding for political parties, such laws should be made according to which expenses are borne equally by both people and the Government.”

Instead of acting as per the advice of Nitish Kumar, BJP-led union government notified the scheme of electoral bonds for political funding in Janaury 2018. It has amended the Companies Act, 2013 to legalise this questionable scheme. The electoral bond is a bearer instrument in the nature of a Promissory Note and an interest-free banking instrument. A citizen of India or a body incorporated in India will be eligible to purchase the bond.

The electoral bond is being issued/purchased for any value, in multiples of 1,000, 10,000, 1,00,000, 10,00,000 and 1,00,00,000 from the specified branches of the State Bank of India (SBI). The purchaser is allowed to buy electoral bonds only on due fulfilment of all the extant KYC norms and by making payment from a bank account. It does not carry the name of the payee. The electoral bonds have a life of only 15 days during which it can be used for making donation only to the political parties registered under section 29A of the Representation of the Peoples Act, 1951 and which has secured not less than one per cent of the votes polled in the last general election to the Lok Sabha or a Legislative Assembly. The bonds under the scheme are available for purchase for a period of 10 days each in the months of January, April, July and October or as specified by the union government. An additional period of 30 days is specified by the union government in the year of the general election to the Lok Sabha. The bond is encashed by an eligible political party only through a designated bank account with the authorised bank.

After revealing that: “Donors have also expressed reluctance in donating by cheque or other transparent methods as it would disclose their identity and adverse consequences”, the union government proposed a scheme in the 2017 budget speech to relieve the donors and to ensure their anonymity. The scheme entails reducing donations to political parties from a single, anonymous source from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000. The minister got the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Act amended to enable the issuance of electoral bonds in accordance with a government-created scheme. Under it, a donor can purchase bonds from authorised banks against cheque and digital payments and deposit it in the designated bank account of the political parties. There is nothing on record to suggest that the scheme is not a quid pro quo arrangement between the donors and the ruling parties. The finance minister will have citizens believe that it will help prevent “future generation of black money.” These amendments cannot be understood without undertaking a joint reading of the Companies Act, 2013, the State Funding of Elections to Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies Bill, 2004 and the Contesting Election on Government Expenses Bill, 2012 crafted on the lines suggested by Nitish Kumar.

Nitish Kumar drew on the recommendations of the Joint Committee of Parliament on Amendments to Election Law (1972), two committess set up by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1975 and 1978, Dinesh Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms (1990), Declaration on Free and Fair Elections adopted unanimously by the Inter-Parliamentary Council (1994), all-party meeting (1998), Indrajit Gupta Committee (1999), Group of Ministers (2001), Group of Ministers (2011) and Indian National Congress led United Progressive Alliance (2011) for state financing of elections as a measure against corruption in the electoral process. Disregarding these recommendations amendments were made in the Companies Act in 2002 to provide for up to 5 % of annual profits of companies for funding of parties, provision was made for 7.5 % of annual profits of companies in Companies Act, 2013 and the limit of 7.5 % of annual profits of companies has been removed for limitless funding of parties. Subsequently, amendments have been made to provide for anonymous funding.

On 7 February 2023, speaking in the context of disclosures on Adani Group by Hindenburg in the Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi asked how Gautam Adani, the group’s founder, jumped from the 609th position to becoming the second-richest person in the world. “How did this magic happen?”. He said, “The Hindenberg report says Adani has shell companies abroad. These companies are sending millions of dollars to India. This is a serious issue as Adani ji is present in strategic areas. He owns ports and airports and produces defence equipment. It is the duty of the Indian government to keep a watch on a company that is involved in such sectors.” He asserted such ‘shell companies’ raise national security issue. Shell companies have only a nominal existence, i.e., it exists only on paper without having any office and employee. Such a company is a corporate entity without having active business operations or significant assets. Such a company may be used as a deliberate financial arrangement providing service as a tool or vehicle of others without itself having any significant assets or operations. The shell companies are identified as companies which are used for tax evasion or money laundering, i.e., channelling crime-tainted money or proceeds of crime into the formal economy.

Most opposition leaders endorsed Gandhi’s demand for a probe into allegations against the Adani Group and related shell companies. He called this nexus between politics and business a case study. He accused the government of bending rules and using agencies to give the Adani Group airport contracts. He alleged that the government altered rules in favour of Adani and did away with the clause that no one without any prior experience would be involved in the development of airports. He said this helped the group gain control of six airports. In his concluding observation, he underlined that microphones have been muted in the Lok Sabha when opposition members attempted to point out failures of the union government.

His speech reminds one of a World Bank report, The Puppet Masters which has investigated 150 big corruption cases which involved the misuse of corporate vehicles, such as companies and trusts, to the tune of $50 billion. These companies have procured the ultimate privilege of the right to anonymity to conceal who really owns the funds. The union government has granted such right by allowing for anonymous donations. Such concealed ownership is a big feature of black money and corporate corruption through myriad veils.

It is evident from Rahul Gandhi’s Lok Sabha speech of February and August 2023 that it has echoes of Nitish Kumar’s Lok Sabha speech of August 1997. Drawing lessons from four decades experience and the fate of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Lula da Silva, Nitish Kumar has mastered art of delivering measured and calibrated speech. The speech of Nitish Kumar and Rahul Gandhi reveals them to be the loudest voices against corporate corruption. There is a compelling logic for both the leaders and all the like-minded leaders to adopt four decades of parliamentary and governmental wisdom which favours state funding of elections. This is required to combat the threat to rule of law and the Indian Constitution from the beneficial owners of the body corporates who are out to displace the political class.

(Author: Dr. Gopal Krishna is a lawyer and a law researcher)

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