Win Or Lose, Elections Make Them Richer

Why politicians stand for election even when they know they will lose

There is nothing like soap opera for a cleansing emotional bath. A brilliant, contemporary instance is the very British, very 1920, class-skirmish series, Downton Abbey. Name a cliché, and there it is, squeezing one teardrop after another. The lord of the manor is lost between two worlds; the grand dame, his mother, pours scorn on both like Oscar Wilde on steroids. The butler has a heart of gold and a purse of copper. One daughter marries an Irish nationalist, who has the temerity not merely to be working class but also Catholic. A second daughter descends further in the social swamp. She becomes a journalist. As the acid-sweet grandmama notes across the dining table, now that the family includes a country solicitor and a car mechanic, it was only a matter of time before someone became a journalist.

Why have journalists been in such bad odour with every pillar of any establishment? Because they ask too many questions and never have enough answers? Or is it because they dip their snoot so often into the trough of corruption?

Journalism is possible only in a democracy; anywhere else information is propaganda. But a democratic establishment is no less caustic about this profession than the old order. Editors never seem satisfied with the occasional private dinner or periodic gong handed out by government; they keep probing into the mutually rewarding relationship between wealth and power, to the great distaste of politicians.

Their rationale is cogent. There is no democracy without elections. Elections require money. Such cash does not grow luxuriantly on legal trees. This primary lubricant can only be generated by businessmen through deceptive accountancy. The quid pro quo is that such businessmen must be protected and rewarded. Case settled.

This argument is being nourished in drawing rooms across borders as the Indian subcontinent lurches its way towards a mammoth election season. Pakistan’s vote is in May; India, Afghanistan and Maldives will follow, with Bangladesh just a little behind and Nepal in permanent maybe-mode. Is there any ethical solution to this septic conundrum?

Yes, and it can be found where you least expect it, in the obvious. Polls require money but never as much as the candidate demands. The simple truth is that money cannot buy you the vote, or no government would ever lose. It is axiomatic that those in office will always commandeer a disproportionate share of available liquidity, but if this alone settled the issue then every election would be over before it began.

Lok Sabha polls 2014

Voters are very wise; they will accept every little bribe thrown their way, and then vote on the basis of policy, politics and perhaps character. When candidates turn beggars or extortionists, it is not because they want to win, but because they want to knit a fat financial cushion that will comfort their posterior for the foreseeable future. Elections are the appropriate time for accumulation since ‘donations’ have become legitimised during this heartbeat moment in a democracy. The true algebra of spending offers different equations. Losers, driven by anxiety, tend to spend more than winners, all other aspects being equal.

Every election does offer one or two high-profile examples where money has been used to fashion a result, but this requires enormous political muscle and some very careful government engineering. Exceptions prove the rule rather than undermine it. The most dramatic election in Indian history was surely the one after Emergency, in 1977. The principal opposition alliance, called Janata Party, had very little money in either north or south India. Janata won every seat in the north, and lost almost every seat in the south. Neither the presence nor absence of money changed the outcome. In the last Tamil Nadu Assembly polls, many DMK enthusiasts believed fervently that Jayalalithaa would be humbled by DMK’s money power. We all know who won.

The electoral excuse for corruption falters on facts. Will this change anything? Probably not. For parties and their candidates, cash collection has become too pleasant a habit. Businessmen might be aware of what is going on, but continue to feed this goose in the belief that it will lay golden eggs very soon. The existing system is their best insurance in an environment where profits can depend on manipulation. This cosy partnership explains why politicians are so desperate to get nominations, even when they are certain that they will lose. They know that whether they become MPs or not, they will always become richer.

The ancient lords, whether in aristocratic Britain or princely India, squeezed their peasants directly and built palaces served by butler and retinue. Their successors are more discreet. They bow before the voter and harass private sector plutocrats. But one thing has not changed. In the end, it is always the people who pay.


MJ Akbar

MJ Akbar is Minister of State for External Affairs, Govt of India, apart from being the editor of The Sunday Guardian (published in Delhi, India, on Sundays). He was the Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.