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Mainstream, VOL LV No 19 New Delhi April 29, 2017

Almost unnoticed, our democracy is getting abridged; is perpetual one-party rule the future of India?

Sunday 30 April 2017, by T J S George

IMPRESSIONS

Fact No. 1: Donations by companies to political parties is the biggest contributor to corruption in India. All parties acknowledge this.

Fact No. 2: Elimination of corruption has been a top priority with the BJP Government. After the currency demonetisation, government leaders even claimed that black money and corruption had been virtually stamped out.

Fact No. 3: The Finance Bill rushed through Parliament two weeks ago made nonsense of the government’s stated positions. It actually legalised unlimited donations by companies, that too, anonymously.

Fact No. 4: Brazenness characterised the government’s move to promote the interests of the ruling party. If new rules also promoted corruption and black money, so be it, seemed to be the official stance.

Consider the audacity on display. Companies were allowed to contribute to parties 7.5 per cent of their average net profits of the previous three years. The Finance Bill abolished that limit. A company can now contribute any amount of money to political parties regardless of whether its own balance-sheet shows profit or loss. Ominously, they do not have to disclose to whom they have given the funds. Thus, the new policy position boils down to: Unlimited and anonymous. So much for the policy of transparency the government swears by.

This is in addition to the electoral bonds idea introduced in the Budget earlier. The Finance Minister claims that this system will bring in clean money. How can it be clean when neither the donor company nor the favoured party has to declare the transaction? In fact the legally permitted secrecy make it a profound boost to crony capitalism. The power of business houses to influence policies has always been a feature of our democracy. Now it can be exercised without even the vexatious paraphernalia that Niira Radia had to organise for her clients.

If things were clean, then what was the need to introduce the Finance Bill with non-money amendments in violation of parliamentary convention? Those amendments should normally have gone through the Rajya Sabha voting as well. But the BJP does not have a majority in the Upper House, so the short cut of money bill with non-money amendments was resorted to. The Opposition objected to the irregularity and walked out, and clauses that would alter the character of Indian democracy were passed by voice-vote.

Corporate donations to political parties always help the party in power more than others. The Association of Democratic Reforms reported that in 2015 the BJP had received contributions totalling Rs 437.35 crores, more than twice the aggregate declared by the Congress, the NCP, the CPI and the CPM put together. Donations received by all political parties that year showed a 151 per cent increase over the previous year. As much as 94 per cent of the donations declared by the BJP came from corporates. These figures point to developments not anticipated either by the Constitution-makers, or indeed by the voters.

The Finance Bill 2017 altered as many as 40 existing laws. One example should suffice to highlight the scary potential of the changes. Under the new amendments, an Income Tax official can now raid your house or office, carry out a search and seize things without giving any reason. This is reminiscent of the powers that Indira Gandhi acquired under the Emer-gency. Just as she did, the authorities today can "legally" intimidate political opponents and subjugate critics. A perilous future awaits those who try to exercise the rights they imagine they have in a democracy.

The picture gets grimmer with the contro-versy that has arisen over voting machine malfunctioning. People like Mayawati and Arvind Kejriwal have zero credibility. When they complained about machine-tampering, it was dismissed as the cry of the loser. Subsequently, however, official tests found that the machines could indeed record votes in favour of one party whichever button was pressed. Following the demo in Bhind under the supervision of the Chief Electoral Officer of Madhya Pradesh, three government officials including the District Collector had been transferred. The State Government resisted any further transfer of officials, but under the pressure of the Election Commission, two more Revenue Officers were transferred.

Only the dumb will fail to understand the implications of these disturbing developmentsā€”of money flowing anonymously to the coffers of a party, of laws getting amended conveniently, of self-opinionated voting machines. We may be witnessing the historical spectacle of a people governed by one of the world’s most enlightened Constitutions electing through constitutionally prescribed channels the same party continuously for ever and ever. Amen.