23 September 2020 07:22 PM

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RENUKA VISWANATHAN | 16 FEBRUARY, 2020

AAP’S Victory in Delhi Is Also a Blow Against Corruption

Major steps forward


The Aam Aadmi party’s sweep of the Delhi Assembly polls has been rightly hailed as the triumph of performance over divisive politics. There is, however, another huge victory hidden behind the dynamics of its campaign, which has escaped notice. A major milestone in the battle initiated by the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement has now been crossed. To understand this, we need to be familiar with canvassing techniques adopted by traditional political parties to maximise vote shares.

The IAC promoted a single solution for the problem of corruption: appointment of a Lok Pal or ombudsman to look into complaints against public servants, including the Prime Minister himself. However, the Lok Pal is not a panacea for the disease. He only gets into the picture post facto, after the corrupt act has been committed, for identifying and punishing culprits.

Constitutional or legal protection cannot also endow those elevated to regulatory posts with the grit and integrity essential for independent action. A Lok Pal can only be as good as the person selected. Haven’t we already seen other “independent” offices compromised and undermined?

Corruption calls for a multipronged attack. The State’s economic reach must be curbed, the scope for official discretion reduced, transparent and simple procedures adopted, information on government decisionmaking freely shared, automatized “untouched by hand” methods of citizen interaction introduced, honest public procurement practices used etc. etc. There must be a service mentality in government offices. There must be help lines and other avenues for recording complaints or feedback. And swift remedial and punitive action must be taken against offenders. Above all, the political system must be cleansed of corrupt practices.

Feelings against corruption ran high during the 2013 campaign in Delhi and some of the same fury remained in 2015. But the mood is different today. During the 2018 Bengaluru campaign for the Karnataka Assembly elections, we found voters resigned and apathetic on the issue of corruption. They knew very well that every government activity was riddled with bribes.

The street plays on corruption that we used in our political campaign, which were performed by talented artistes, riveted the attention of passersby, even on busy street corners. Constables detailed to supervise us were also seen nodding at every nuance of the dialogue, which mimicked the laidback corrupt ambience of public offices. But, the same persons told us that we could never have a bribe free world. They admitted that AAP volunteers were a breed apart and believed that we would keep our promises.

They extended their affection and trust to us but only as a sympathetic and helpful NGO. We were the beloved do-gooders, approachable, reliable, generous and honest; in the view of voters, these were qualities that would not work in the political arena.

Evidently, in 2020 the Aam Aadmi party sensed a similar shift in the mood of the Delhi electorate. Its campaign material for the poll barely refers to how it has reduced corruption. For example, the successful scheme for home delivery of services, which has eliminated harassment, delay and public inconvenience in dealing with government offices, is never mentioned.

The 2018 Bangalore campaign taught us also that corruption affected persons of different social classes and income levels differently. Well-off people managed corruption as a necessary evil and even openly looked for “agents” who would get their work done in government offices. They were not above jumping a queue, breaking a law or getting an undue benefit by paying the price. We became inured to crass comments from this group, remarks like: “I can afford to pay the bribe”, that revealed how blind they were to the effects of corruption on the national economy and polity.

Persons with lower incomes winced at the additional cost of bribes in official transactions, but knew that it was an integral part of the daily environment, which they were powerless to resist. And, for the poorest families, payment of a bribe meant a sharp fall in the meagre income with which they kept body and soul together. (Destitute old age pensioners, for example, had no option but to live with the reality that their monthly pittance would be cut by the postman who delivered the money).

The poor were not, however, indifferent to the election process. Their favourite item in the menu of AAP’s achievements in Delhi was the government school offering facilities beyond those provided by the most expensive private schools in Bengaluru. Evidently, for them education was the door out of the trap of misery and poverty: this was the dream that shone in the eyes of the women and children who crowded around our videos.

But, they did not look to their political representatives to give them good schools or a bribe-free world. Election season was welcomed as an opportunity to make some extra money by selling their votes or lending their election IDs to political agents, who would misuse them at the polling booth. In the short period before and during elections, EPIC cards become legal tender, raising a few additional rupees for indigent families.

The 2018 Assembly election taught us a great deal about the campaign methodology of traditional political parties. AAP volunteers start door to door visits four to six months in advance of elections, but for veterans of the Congress or the BJP, electioneering starts only when polling dates are announced. Their campaigns are farmed out to tiers of agents, arranged in jagirdari style. Lumpsum amounts are passed on to each level, with promises of additional money, if the targeted number of voters is actually delivered to polling booths. (This can be verified since voting machines log up boothwise numbers polled by each candidate).

The money actually received by a voter depends, however, on his bargaining strength vis a vis the political agent. Slum dwellers living under precarious conditions get low amounts as they can also be harassed into submission. And, promises of money or other benefits are rarely fully met. This kind of electioneering is a lucrative economic activity during the election season. As polling day neared, AAP volunteers in Bengaluru were also approached by local agents, who offered to bring us large numbers of voters. They were taken aback to learn that the party would not buy votes.

I learned a great deal about AAP’s own poll financing methods during the 2018 campaign. Earlier, I had looked at the party as member and volunteer, noting how donations were always swiftly acknowledged. When I became an AAP candidate for the Karnataka Assembly, I observed its inner workings too. I discovered that every rupee spent on my election by myself or by the party came from tax-paid white money, raised from donors and volunteers through checks or digital payment.

We politely declined cash donations and ensured that each contribution was acknowledged through mobile and mail messages instantaneously. Due diligence procedures for vetting candidates were far more rigorous than those used by election staff. Income tax returns of parents and children, whether dependents or not, were scrutinized by the party before a candidature was cleared. (My mother and daughter jibbed at this violation of their privacy but the party was adamant.)

We got used to interruptions from party auditors in the midst of hectic canvassing, when campaign managers scrambled around for vouchers and other documents. And we were asked to submit expenditure statements to the party office much before the dates set by the Election Commission for such data. AAP volunteers sought votes only through publicity campaigns, but we saw and complained about intimidation and open distribution of black money to households by traditional parties.

Poor families constitute the principal demographic that political parties need to capture to win elections anywhere in the country; they are also the ones most susceptible to monetary inducements. AAP volunteers of Delhi had worked to improve the lot of people in slums and unauthorized colonies, which gave them close links to such voters and a natural affinity for their concerns.

To counter the pervasive trade in votes, during the 2013 and 2015 elections, AAP leaders advised voters to take the money offered by traditional politicians (since it was stolen from their own entitlements) and then proceed to vote for their preferred AAP candidate.

In the 2020 elections, there was no need for this message, since voters were lining up to support AAP for their sterling performance. Today’s Delhi voters have no fear of intimidation either. We see them confidently proclaiming their voting preferences, a welcome change from the circumspection with which they spoke to outsiders and media persons during the 2015 polls, even when they were giving AAP a bonanza of 67 out of 70 seats. Exit polls also reveal the overwhelming support of the poor for AAP candidates. The delicious irony of the Delhi result then is that those who sell votes for money have this time around opted for the only party that does not buy votes!

The implications of this critical shift in electoral behavior will not be lost on political parties. For the country as a whole, this is cause for celebration. A major prop of the corrupt political framework has collapsed, now that poor voters have learnt to seek long term benefits over dubious one-time doles. This is a massive step forward in the battle for clean politics, an essential prerequisite for removing corruption and improving governance.

Traditional political parties can no longer sell the narrative that black money is essential to run elections: neither to meet campaign expenses nor to buy votes. They may of course choose to ignore the message, since removal of black money from poll campaigns will eliminate a lucrative means of self-enrichment for political agents.

Activists of all parties who care for the welfare of citizens could, however, take hope from AAP’s triumph over corrupt campaigning. Surely, other political parties can also follow the AAP example, now that voters have endorsed it with such enthusiasm. Let us hope that they do.
 

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