Scrap the spending limit

There are two notable things regarding the ongoing elections in Karnataka. The first is the presence of a large number of real estate developers in the elections. The second is the virtual non-existence of corruption, rather the removal of it, in party manifestos. These two points, I believe, are not independent. Under the current system, political parties are forced to rely on black money to fund election campaigns. For people with black money, election funding is an extremely lucrative investment, and with the right bets or good hedges, can give excellent returns.

The political parties have no way out of this. In the name of austerity, and conserving public money, there is a limit on spending in elections. Currently, it stands at a measly Rs. 10 lakh per candidate. In other words, what the rules say is that no candidate is allowed to spend more than this amount on his campaign. Assuming that the average assembly constituency has about 2 lakh voters (this is the case with Karnataka this time round), this works out to Rs. 5 per voter.

A “normal” election involves considerable expenses – banners and posters and flyers; speeches by national politicians; public meetings; door to door campaigning; rallies (And I’m not even thinking about “illegal expenses” such as buying liquor and saris and crowds). It is obvious that in order to put up a serious campaign, one needs to spend a large multiple of the official limit. There is only one way to fund this – using “black money”.

Notice that even if a particular party wants to be honest, and doesn’t want to use black money, it can’t do so unless it is willing to badly hurt it’s own chances in the elections. There is simply no way out. Yes, you might think of increasing the spending limit, but if the other guy is willing to spend over and above the new limit there isn’t much you can do.

As you might have figured out from the title of this post, my recipe is to scrap the spending limit on elections. It is fairly common knowledge that no one really sticks to these limits. Why not just legalize this? It still won’t stop parties from using unaccounted money. However, it gives the parties an OPTION to be honest, and use only honest sources of money.

If a party wants to go to the polls on an anti-corruption platform, it would be able to do so without being corrupt during the process itself. And once some party takes the plunge and “goes honest”, the other parties are likely to follow soon, unless they can afford to lose their reputation. And where will “honest” political parties get their funding from? I’m sure there is a large number of businesses who stand to benefit a lot from a corruption-free government. It shouldn’t be a problem to tap them for funds.

I concede that it’s not a foolproof solution. There is no guarantee that there will be some party which will take the bait and go “all white”. Even if one party does so, there is no guarantee that the entire flawed system can be cleaned up. However, this proposal doesn’t cost too much. I can see no real negative aspects of removing the cap (if you can think of anything, please let me know in the comments). It is definitely worth a try. It is definitely superior to give people the choice to be honest, rather than forcing them to be dishonest.

Cross posted at the Indian Economy Blog

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