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Breakingviews - India Insight: Money power is choking democracyMUMBAI (Reuters Breakingviews) - The rare Asiatic lion is no match forIndia’sdemocracy. In the 2009general election, a polling station was set up for a single voter in a wildlife sanctuary where big cats roam free.Officials go to ever-greater extremes to ensure votersin the world’s largest democracycan cast their ballots, erecting booths in snow-capped mountains and in Maoist rebel-affected areas.Unfortunatelypoliticians, also known asnetas, show no similar enthusiasm for stamping out corruptioninthe electoral system. In a nation thirsty for good governance, that’s ripe for change. A boy's face is seen through the Indian national flag during Independence day celebrations in Mumbai, India, August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas - RC1FE1173EF0India is knowntheworld over for bureaucracy, yet its elections are a marvel of staggering complexity and surprising efficiency. The lastnational ballot, held over six weeks five years ago, swept Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power. The next, which must be held by May, willencompassaround 875 million voters, 1 millionvotingstations, and over 10 million pollin

g and police personnel. Turnout is rising too, with the 2014 countat more than 66 percent,higher thanin theU.S. presidential electionin 2016. Yet the integrity of thecountry’snoisy democracy is buckling under the weight of money. The problem has been ignored, even by India’s most anti-graft-minded leader in decades. Modi has started to shift the consensus on how the nation thinks about corruption and tamed high-level crony capitalism, but when it comes to elections,the distortionslookincreasinglygrotesque. MONEY POWER The 2019 poll will cost about $8.5 billion, almost double theoutlays inthe last general election, according to the Centre for Media Studies,a Delhi-based thinktank.The tallycould be even higher after the limit on corporate donations was abolished last year.Thoseamountscompare to$6.5billionspentontheU.S.Senat

e, House and presidentialraces that elected Donald Trump in the United States three years ago, according to theCenter for Responsive Politics. CMS researchers havealso found, from samples in some states, that up to 37 percent of Indian voters have received money for votes.Milan Vaishnav,director of the South Asiaprogramme attheCarnegie Endowment for International Peace,says the problem is so bad that elections are now synonymous with gift-giving, from cash to

items as lavish as flat-screen televisions. Notablyauthoritative criticism comes from former Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla, who oversaw the 2009 poll. Inhis newbook“Every Vote Counts he notes that he came to see “the growth of ‘money power’ as a hydra-headed monster. The problems startwith under-reporting against officialcampaign-spending caps, currently at 7 million rupees, orjust under$100,000, per candidate. Acknowledging the widespread practice, the late former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, qu

ipped:“Every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files. Perhapsbecause money talks, criminal charges don’t seem to disqualify candidates in India. In fact,around 30 percent of ministers in the current administration facesuch allegations,many for serious things related to murder, communal disharmony and kidnapping, according to a 2014 study by National Election Watch and the Association for Democratic Reforms.According to Vaishnav at the Carnegie Endowment, politicians with cases against them are statistically more likely to winelections. Another scourge isso-calledpaid news. An undercover exposby Cobrapost last year alleged that top media groups were willing to accept payment in return for favourable coverage of the ruling party. Media moguls, including Vineet Jain, the managing director of Bennett Coleman, publisher of the top-selling Times of India, were shown on video appearing to negotiate terms. The Timesdenied wrongdoing and said in an editorial, that Cobrapost was, in fact, the victim of a deliberate “reverse sting. Whatever the truth of thatparticular tale, Chawla recallsin his bookhow candidates would complain about being blacked out of the news after failing to pay up. The sheer sums required to have a viable run in Indian politics limit the candidate pool and, inevitably, encourage thosewho winofficeto seek reward, either to repaydebtsand favoursor to build a war-chest for the next campaign. FAIRER ELECTIONS

Strictercampaign-spending caps, as in the United Kingdom,are one possible thrust of reform.India’s Election Commission has proposed a limit on theanonymous donations parties can receive as a proportion of their total fundingsetat 20 percent, or 200 million rupees ($2.8 million), whichever is lower.However, in isolationadditional limits could proveineffective given how little respect netas show for existing ones. That’s why greater transparency is also important.India could, for example,eliminate cash donations, says Vaishnav.Making money traceablewouldmake it easier to spot politiciansusing it in suspicious ways. He a

lso suggests requiring independent audits of party accounts, and makingpayment fornews coveragea disqualifying offence, onapar with vote-rigging. Public funding of polls, as in Germany, could also be part of the answer but that would only be meaningful with other reforms in transparency. There is a wealth of good ideas but politicians, who need to approve any changes to the law, consistently ignore the commission’s reform proposalswhen it comes tocampaign finance. The netas appear to have closed ranks. The result is thathuge amounts of money slosh around inIndia’s electoral system,just as in the United States, but with few of even the most rudimentary checks and balances that exist evenin America’s imperfectsystem. Corporate backers of candidateswant to remain anonymous so that they won’t be punished if their chosen party loses.Yeteven leading industrialists,among themRatan Tata, arevoicing concern about the increasing scope for abuse.Modi has taken on some other forms of corruption, butIndia needs a leader willing and able to make a politica

l case forrooting graft out ofits sprawlingdemocracy.

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