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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 17, April 19, 2014

India Inc’s Massive Bid for Power

Sunday 20 April 2014


In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, India has witnessed an unprecedented demonstration of massive infusion of money in electoral campaigning. A sort of carpet-bombing of India’s voters with the Opposition BJP’s message everywhere to be seen, from advertisements in newspapers, on TV, on radio, on the Internet, on the street billboards in all metropolitan cities and small towns, including on transport vehicles (even inside the Delhi Metro trains). In effect it has blocked out all other political parties as far as public advertising goes. This vast campaign has been on a scale never experienced in history, estimated by some to be costing over Rs 5000 crores to Rs 6000 crores.

These are astronomical figures for any one party to be spending in an election campaign when its earnings just a few years ago were shown to be far limited. So who on earth is funding such a gigantic publicity blitz? There should be no doubt in our minds that some of the biggest private corporations with deep pockets that had already publicly pledged support toward the candidature of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister (even before the BJP had chosen its PM candidate) are behind this.

For decades questions have been asked about powerful interests with money influencing elections in India but the 2014 elections send a dangerous signal about where we are headed. There are strict rules that apply as to the limit of the individual candidate’s election campaign spending in the country but these rules do not apply to campaign advertising by political parties. Although political parties are required to submit to the Election Commission details of donors who have made donations above Rs 20,000 every year, according to the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), 75 per cent of the donations are unknown. The time has come now for all Indians concerned about the health of the nation’s electoral democracy to call for a strict scrutiny, controls and public disclosure over the role of private sector funding of political parties.

Since 2012 there has been much debate as to the source of funding of India’s political parties. According to the I-T returns filed by various parties and contribution reports submitted to the Election Commission which were accessed by two organisations through the Right to Information Act, the top five parties with the highest income between 2004-05 and 2010-11 were: the Congress with Rs 2008 crores, the BJP—Rs 994 crores, the BSP—Rs 484 crores, the CPI-M—Rs 417 crores and the SP—Rs 279 crores.

Latest figures from the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) show that the BJP received the maximum donations of Rs 192.47 crores from 1334 corporate donors followed by the Congress which received Rs 172.25 crores from 418 donors. The inclination of the corporates towards the Modi-driven BJP is clearly reflected in the maximum number of donations to this party.

Be that as it may, we need to look at the wider picture and bigger story. A sort of elephant in the room that post-Nehruvian India doesn’t seem to want to hear about. This is the story of crony capitalism and concentration of power through the nexus of business interests and politics. During the days of the licence-permit raj, the corrupt Ministers and bureaucrats got cuts and commissions on government contracts, but all that is peanuts when compared to the capitalist Disneyland that India post-1991 has come to be. Crony Capitalism Version 2 has meant industrialists have now entered Parliament and are dictating policy from inside. Totally unviable projects have been funded in the past two decades by nationalised banks leading to accumulation of massive bad loans by the public sector banks. Dubious funding and skewed approval of projects of a few oligarchs in airlines, telecom, coal are some of the big scams that we have been hearing about in the past few years, not to talk of immunity for non-compliance of tax rules. What were India’s Taxmen doing all these years? It took so much time for the Supreme Court of India to book the Sahara’s big boss—it’s amazing that this gigantic corporation doesn’t even publish annual accounts; and that flamboyant owner of Kingfisher is still flying high with full impunity.

The big private players have used widespread networks of lobbyists to influence selection of Ministers in governments alongside the choice of pliant bureaucrats (we have heard those infamous Radia Tapes).

And no one talks of the overarching influence exercised by the Ambanis and their Reliance empire on India’s political system. When Hamish Macdonald published the Polyester Prince, the book was blocked and nearly disappeared from public gaze. Under the BJP’s NDA disinvestment programme, the Ambanis acquired the IPCL giving them huge sway of the petrochemical business in India. They nearly got the then government to privatise the gems of India’s public sector, Bharat Petroleum and Indian Oil. In a recent book, called Gas Wars, the intrepid journalist, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, has exposed the story behind the Ambanis’ control of the gas and oil reserves in the Krishna Godavri basin despite incredible wrongdoing, violation of government contracts and a huge loss to the exchequer.

A concerted corporate attempt to exert unbridled influence over the Indian economy is underway.

It is being murmured that the big business elites now want a free hand to further reshape the economic and political landscape of India and that’s behind their no-holds-barred major bid for power in 2014. The Ambanis are big guys leading this pack and have pulled out all stops in this election campaign. After all, this is about expanding market access and not about constitutional values. Open your eyes, fellow Indians and democrats, we may lose precious democratic space that still exists in this country, if the corporates fully capture the state.

The time has come for building public opinion for a full and complete ban on corporate funding of political parties in India.

April 17 Harsh Kapoor