In a recent article I wrote that most of the people campaigning for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) come from different social strata but are united by a common desire to seek honest politics. On reading the article a friend asked me if I believed that everyone in AAP was honest and everyone in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or Congress was corrupt. My response to him was, of course there were some honest individuals in BJP and Congress and maybe some dishonest ones in AAP, but the difference between the two sets of parties is not only relative but also fundamental. This is an attempt to understand that difference.
Seeking honest politics is at the core of AAP’s identity and agenda. In contrast, corrupt practices have seeped well into the core of BJP and Congress, to the extent that corruption is now an integral part of the institutions and processes in those parties. Of course AAP is still a political start up and things could change in the long run. But it is an important fact that until now it has kept honesty at its core. This claim reflects in how AAP’s strategic and operational practices of internal governance differ from those in BJP and Congress. This is a routine but crucial difference. If it is true it implies that while an honest person will feel at home in AAP, she will feel out of place in BJP or Congress. Even though BJP and Congress may have some honest members, such persons will be severely constrained by institutional corruption and would have to confine honest behavior largely to their own selves. Even expressing honest behavior often would be difficult for an individual as the institutional tide is against it. Whereas in AAP, an individual who is corrupt and wishes to pursue such practice via her party would find it difficult to do so as it would be against AAP’s dominant institutional grain. Let us try to understand this crucial difference by way of examples of an important aspect of ethical governance – routine financial and accounting practices. I was involved in fund raising and supervising expenses and accounts of AAP in Khandwa constituency, and can illustrate this with some confidence.
AAP has been following strict financial propriety in every constituency. All financial donations received either by party or by candidate are declared fully. Donations made to party are displayed on its website. All election expense accounts are maintained as they are in reality and reported to the returning officers. All vendors are asked to provide correct bills. There were instances when some vendors tried to offer us bills much less than actual price on grounds that it was a normal thing with BJP and Congress, and we had to patiently explain them why things had to be straight with AAP as that is part of its core value. In addition, all large individual payments, typically more than Rs. 5000, are made by cheques. The total expense in every constituency is within the limit prescribed by the Election Commission.
Therefore an AAP volunteer who wants to live an honest life and looks forward to honest politics has a reason to feel proud – her party follows ethical and transparent financial practices. In fact by working in the party and looking at such benchmarks she is herself encouraged to act with greater honesty than how she may have had in the past. A volunteer who wants to indulge in corrupt or dishonest practices through AAP has to try hard to survive. Such a person, being in minority and acting against the dominant culture of the party, tends to get highlighted.
By stark contrast, in BJP or Congress one cannot imagine all this in any constituency. Corruption in those parties begins right at the time they take donations. A significant portion of donations is taken in black and is not declared. And most of such large donations naturally come with strings attached. On the expense front, most of the payments are made by cash, which means a lot of it is not reported to returning officers. As is common knowledge, besides normal campaign related expense these parties unofficially distribute loads of cash to influence voters. The total expense can exceed the prescribed limit by a few times to a few hundred times depending on the constituency and the candidate. A heavyweight candidate throwing a few hundred crores in her Lok Sabha constituency is not uncommon. According to some reports the total expense of Modi’s campaigns in this election has been a few thousand crores.
It is surprising that these acts of large scale financial impropriety, which should be outright unacceptable in a democracy, have come to be viewed as normal.
With such huge funding and expenses – a good portion of it unaccounted – these parties and their candidates are trapped in, or rather willingly ride, a vicious spiral of corruption. They oblige large funders, often big companies and middlemen dealers, with undue favours. The latter, in turn, get encouraged to maximize financial returns by giving further bribes and lobbying for more favours. The consequences are: manipulation of policies; sell offs of natural resources like lands, forests, mines and underground water at throwaway prices; bypassing of environmental and social clearances; and draining of public exchequer. As most of the natural resources are public commons on whom traditional communities of farmers, tribals and other people depend, an equally disastrous consequence is stripping of those communities from their livelihood resources. Parties soaked in corruption often do not care about appropriate rehabilitation of such people as they have the weakest voice.
One can imagine that Modi’s campaign, fought on the backing of big companies and big money, will only exacerbate these trends of corruption. It is therefore incredible that such candidates and parties are able to sell their promises of good governance. On another thought it does not seem surprising that Modi and his proclaimed qualities had to be marketed like a commercial product.
Needless to say, in such a party a person who seeks honest political actions can only feel helpless. She cannot do much beyond following some honest principles in her personal life alone. That has indeed been the story of a few honest individuals in BJP and Congress.
As AAP, and maybe a few other smaller parties, seek honest politics as a core agenda and try to follow such practices especially in financial matters, most of the people who join them are united by those very desires, i.e. to work towards honest politics. AAP, being the leading party among these in terms of its national reach and impact, is setting off a trend by providing this space of honest politics to the people at a visible scale.
These illustrations are sufficient to understand why the space for honest expressions and actions, at least in the financial domain, is severely constrained if one is a member of BJP or Congress or a similar other party. Financial ethics is a necessary, though not sufficient, determinant of general ethical behavior.
Therefore if the foundation of financial ethics in a party is shaky, it would be difficult for it to display ethical behaviour in other spheres too, although ethical behavior in other spheres would also be contingent on some other determinants. By sticking steadfastly to upright internal financial governance and additionally trying to include serious concerns of different sections in its political agenda, AAP is keeping the hope of honest politics alive.
(The author is a former faculty member of IIT Bombay and IIM Lucknow. He has a B.Tech. from IIT Kanpur, a PhD from IIM Ahmedabad, and a Post-Doctorate from NIES Japan. At present he is an entrepreneur and an adjunct professor, with professional interests in operations strategy, supply chain management, mathematical modeling, energy, climate change and sustainable development)