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January 9, 2014 01:49 IST | Updated: January 9, 2014 01:49 IST

The importance of the Aam Aadmi Party's stunning triumph in the recently concluded election to the Delhi Assembly goes beyond its impressive numbers (28 in an Assembly of 70). It even goes beyond its being able to form a government (albeit with outside support). Its greatest achievement lies in its being able to win a clean election, without having to resort to money and muscle power or without having to exhort caste, creed, class or religious loyalties. It kept its expenditure within the statutory limit (Rs.16 lakh for an election to the State Assembly of Delhi). That any candidate can win an election today within the limits set by law, even with the support of party cadres, is a fact to be applauded. But when a political party wins an election without breaking the election code in any significant respect, and that too under harsh media glare in the national capital, it is all the more remarkable. The AAP's candidates, by all accounts, had very little money in their pockets. They, however, succeeded in raising largely small donations from within their neighbourhoods. Their example provides hope that there may actually be a way out of the spiral of vastly excessive election expenditure. For, in recent years, all parties having declared "winnability" to be their "mantra," have usually ended up giving tickets to those wealthy enough to fund their own elections. In addition, muscle power, even criminality, has often been viewed as bonus points. Once caught in this spiral, most of our political parties have been unable to find a way out of this impasse. Surely, this is where the success of the AAP becomes both a fascinating case study and an important benchmark toward cleaner elections.

The crorepati factor

Over the last several years, there has been a growing tendency for all the established political parties to choose crorepatis as their candidates. Since all candidates have by law to furnish sworn affidavits to the Election Commission of India (ECI) pursuant to an order of the Supreme Court (2002) regarding their wealth, education and criminal cases if any, some non-governmental organisations have been collating these figures and putting them up on their websites. At this point, I need to qualify a few points that are not necessarily interrelated, for just the bold assertion of figures of crorepatis can sometimes lead us to draw the wrong conclusions. One, as property prices have risen dramatically in recent years, anyone owning a house in a city or a large town becomes, ipso facto, a crorepati. For example, a house or piece of land purchased for one lakh rupees in 1970, might well be worth several crores today. Paradoxically, there are candidates who deliberately undervalue their wealth. Having qualified this, statistics do however reveal that the established parties prefer to hand out tickets to the wealthy, obviously on the assumption that they would fund their own elections without overly burdening the party. This trend is evident from the figures collated by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) over the last several elections, both to Parliament and State Assemblies.

Assembly elections

This trend is also reflected in the figures on the ADR website which reveals that in the recent Delhi Assembly election, the cumulative percentage of crorepatis was 33 per cent. The SAD party led with both its candidates being crorepatis (hence 100 per cent), the INC followed with 87 per cent crorepatis, while the BJP had 85 per cent. The AAP, too, had its share of crorepatis at 47 per cent. Interestingly, the average asset of the INC candidates was 14+ crores of rupees, the BJP's was 8+ crore, while the AAP declared 2+ crore. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP reflected 70 per cent crorepatis, while the INC had 66 per cent and the BSP 18 per cent. In Rajasthan the BJP figures were 75 per cent and the INC 70 per cent. In Mizoram, the MPC fielded eight candidates, all crorepatis, while the INC had 73 per cent and the MNF fielded 65 per cent. In Chhattisgarh, the average figure of all parties was 22 per cent with the INC at 68 per cent and the BJP at 66 per cent.

The combination of money and muscle power (the latter however covert), are increasingly dangerous signs that we need to recognise and combat. It is fortunate that our founding fathers, with consummate wisdom, created institutions that have been able to withstand some of the distortions that have crept in. Over the years, the Supreme Court, the High Courts, the Election Commission (and Parliament when it chooses to engage in serious debate), have through a number of important judgments, orders and legislation strengthened our democratic framework. The Election Commission has over the last few decades brought in much greater equality and transparency to combat electoral malpractices, and has effectively outlawed the strong-arm methods of yesteryear. The Supreme Court has recently, in another momentous decision (Lily Thomas vs Union of India, July 10, 2013), removed the protective shield that MPs and MLAs hitherto enjoyed, which was that even upon conviction for a whole host of offences, they could continue to enjoy the shelter of Parliament/legislature, simply if they filed an appeal within 90 days!

Curbing money power

Electoral money power has been a most difficult problem to resolve. When I was Election Commissioner and later Chief Election Commissioner, it was often very frustrating to see how candidates, despite the presence of the Election Commission's Observers during election, used all manner of deception to distribute money and freebies in order to lure voters. There seemed to be no end to human ingenuity when it came to their methods. Large sums of cash were ferried in the most unlikely of private and public vehicles, and in the Karnataka elections of 2008, even milk vans and ambulances were not spared from the most blatant misuse. While over Rs.40 crore of cash and freebies were seized by vigilant officials, unknown amounts of clandestine sums would doubtless have reached their destinations. By-elections, in particular, were characterised by their sheer brazenness in this respect. The by-election of Thirumangalam (Tamil Nadu, December 2008-January 2009) marked a particularly low point for the Election Commission in this regard. Elections in Bellary in Karnataka too provided another case study of how far this malaise had reached. During elections there, a number of poll-related criminal cases were registered; yet, almost the first step that the newly elected State government sought to do was to withdraw these cases. In what otherwise might have been an amusing case study involving our bureaucracy, the Public Prosecutor was ordered by the State government to move the court to withdraw these cases, while the Election Commission passed orders that all election-related offences would instead be contested in court on their merits, and could not be withdrawn by executive orders. The High Court was later to uphold the ECI's position. These and other such cases of money and muscle power were surely not those to make us feel proud as a people.

However, it would be one-sided on my part to paint everything as negative. Far from it. These aberrations apart, there are a whole host of positives. Unlike many other countries which obtained freedom from colonial rule at about the same time and have only enjoyed brief democratic interludes between long periods of military dictatorship or the most wrenching of insurgencies, India has been a stable democracy throughout. In India, we have always held elections on mandated time — every time. There has invariably been a willing acceptance of the people's mandate. The loser has consistently passed on the baton to the winner without hesitation. The Election Commission is viewed as fair and impartial. Court orders in election-related petitions have been accepted without demur. All these are no mean achievements, even if we were to compare ourselves to very developed countries with a much higher per capita income than our own.

In this larger context it may help to explain why it is important for us, as a still evolving democracy, that this recently created political phenomenon has successfully been able to demonstrate that elections can be won without resorting to calls of caste, religion, subterfuge, muscle and money. That the AAP candidates were able to identify the problems that were troubling their neighbours was because they themselves were integral to both the problems and the neighbourhood, and, as a result, neither deep pockets nor muscle had any role to play .

(Navin Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India.)

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Keywords: Aam Aadmi Party, Delhi Assembly elections, Arvind Kejriwal