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The Real Lessons of Tehelka Exposes

Please help make the Manifesto better, or accept it, and propagate it!
 The author of this essay - Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan,  a physician and
former IAS officer, is the founder of Foundation for Democratic
Reforms and the Convenor of Lok Satta - Power to the People - a
successful Hyderabad based movement for Democratic Reforms. To learn
more about Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan or the Foundation for Democratic
Reforms in India, please check out the web site www.loksatta.org )

The Real Lessons of Tehelka Exposes

        -- Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan (Lok Satta, FDR)

    Tarun Tejpal, Aniruddha Bahal and Matthew Samuel of Tehelka.com
have done a great national service by exposing the pervasive corruption
in the establishment. But it will be a great national tragedy if these
exposes are regarded as a juicy scandal to embarrass the ruling combine
or promote the prospects of the opposition. That was how the political
establishment responded to the Bofors revelations in 1987. Fourteen
years later the system reeks of corruption, and none of the culprits
have been brought to book. Jain, Hawala and other scandals followed the
same pattern. The real lessons of Tehelka exposures are elsewhere.

    Every bit player in politics and government knows how rotten our
establishment is. A humble sarpanch or a petty clerk can tell
us hair-raising tales of corruption in government. A town planning
officer in a mid-sized city rakes in a crore of rupees a year. Our
political system is built on the foundations of corruption. We have
come to a stage when honesty is no longer compatible with political
survival. Prime minister Vajpayee has gone on record that every
elected legislator starts his career with a big lie - by signing an
affidavit that his election expenditure was within the ceiling
prescribed by law.

    The estimated expenditure incurred by parties and candidates for
Lok Sabha and state Assembly elections is of the order of about Rs.7000
crore. Strangely, this figure in absolute terms is comparable to the
exorbitant election expenditure in the US. In the 2000 elections in the
US for the presidency, both houses of congress, gubernatorial offices
and state legislatures, the total expenditure was estimated to be about
$ 3 billion. About half of it was incurred for issue-advertising by
political action committees (PACs) and pressure groups. The
actual campaign expenditure was probably about $1.5 billion, which
is almost exactly the amount spent in Indian elections!  When you
consider the high purchasing power of rupee as opposed to its
low exchange value, our real expenditures is about five to six times
that in the US. Yet, our income per capita is nearly one-eightieth
(1/80) of that in the US. Adjusting for our higher population, and
relative to per capita income, our per capita election expenditure is
several times (about 20 times in purchasing power terms and 100 times
in absolute terms) that in the US! But with two crucial differences -
in the U.S every dime and dollar collected and spent are fully
disclosed and accounted for, and over 70% of the expenditure is
on the television advertising. In India there is no disclosure, and
most expenditure is for illegal purposes. And yet, there is enormous
concern in the US about the fund collection efforts, likely corruption,
the link between campaign contribution and governmental decision making
and patronage, and so on. But in India, the media and the establishment
take each expose of the Tehelka.com type as another juicy scandal to
bring excitement to our drab lives or presage change of players in the
game of power.

    The high and illegitimate election expenditure inevitably lead to
massive corruption at every level and in every sector. Corruption in
defence deals is obviously more dramatic because of the centralized
decision making, and the emotions roused on account of national
security implications. But every one with a modicum of understanding of
our politics knows that even minor parties collect and spend tens of
cores of rupees. Powerful regional parties in major States spend about
Rs.300  400 crore in a general election, and national parties and
their candidates spend probably Rs.2000  3000 crore in all elections
over a five-year period. The money raked in through collusion
and extortion is astronomical. The actual corruption is a hundred fold
to satisfy the greed of politicians and bureaucrats and to cover the
political and legal risks.

    It is time the political establishment converted this scandal and
crisis into an opportunity. All parties should honestly introspect and
use the opportunity to comprehensively reform our electoral system.
Accessible and fair voter registration process, elimination of polling
malpractices, decriminalization of politics, transparent and
accountable campaign finance with full disclosure and severe penalties
for noncompliance, creation of opportunities for raising funds for
legitimate expenditure, and political party reform to enforce internal
democracy and transparency should be the cornerstones of any such
electoral reform.

      But we should not stop at that. The first-past-the-post (FPTP)
system of elections we adopted is guaranteed to enhance electoral
corruption in a poor country like ours. We should switch over to
proportional representation (PR) with a reasonable threshold levels
of, say 10% valid vote in a major State for parties to be eligible for
representation. We can combine this PR model with FPTP to get the
benefits of both systems. We need to reexamine the cabinet system in
States. While the parliamentary executive model is ideal in a plural
society at the national level, in States there is no logic or rationale
not to separate the legislature from the executive. A directly elected
executive accountable to State Assembly - as in Israel, or with clear
separation of powers- as in US, will significantly reduce corruption
levels. We need to consider such an improvement in States and
local governments. We also need a properly designed right to
information law. The NDA government bill is very defective and needs
substantial improvement. Finally, we need to reform our judiciary to
make speedy, accessible and efficient justice a reality.

    The prime minister and leader of opposition owe it to the country
to respond to this challenge and work hard to enhance the legitimacy of
the political system. Instead, if we continue with our political games
as usual, it will be a real national tragedy. A priceless opportunity
would have been once again squandered, and the nation will sink deeper
into crisis of legitimacy and governance. What we need today is
courageous and far-sighted leadership from all parties.

                  --- Jayaprakash Narayan

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