Elections in India: Transparency, Accountability, and Corruption

This post was written by Ravi Duggal, Program Officer at the International Budget Partnership.

Elections are underway in the world’s largest democracy. With over 800 million voters spanning 543 political constituencies, voting will last until mid-May. And transparency and accountability are shaping up to be key issues for voters.

Turbulence in the last few years

The last two years have seen major upheaval in Indian politics and the general mood is against the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) – a centre-left coalition led by the Congress party. Many believe the UPA has underperformed. Economic growth has slowed from around 9 percent just a few years ago, to less than 5 percent last year; and flagship development programs have seen a downslide in performance due to underfunding and mismanagement.

Concerns over corruption have sparked widespread discontent. Civil society organizations (CSOs) led a countrywide anticorruption campaign that saw many people take to the streets to demand stronger laws and greater oversight. In 2013, this campaign coalesced into a new political party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP or Common Peoples Party). Running on a platform of direct democracy, citizen’s participation, and accountability, the AAP successfully competed in state elections in Delhi.

Polls, however, point to a victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). There is a wave of support for its controversial leader Narendra Modi. But polling may underestimate a silent coalition of groups that feel threatened by Modi’s strong Hindu-nationalist leanings.

BJP India

Supporters of BJP in Kerala, April 2014 (Creative Commons/gordontour)

Transparency and citizen engagement in action

With the growing attention to open and accountable governance, and discontent over business-as-usual, what might these elections mean for efforts to increase transparency and participation around government budgeting? Thanks to new technology and increased transparency, citizens, CSOs, and the media are engaging in the election in ways not seen before in India. A wealth of information is available on prospective candidates, everything from their legislative performance to details of their personal finances. CSOs, such as PRS Legislature and Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), have analyzed and publicized such publically available information, and the media has picked up on it and run stories on the more high-profile candidates.

The Election Commission (EC) also has been swamped with complaints over code of conduct violations by political campaigners. High-profile examples include Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s urging supporters to vote twice, and top leader in the BJP Amit Shah’s hate speech against Muslims.

Although elections are but one aspect of governance, and we should be cautious about overreaching, these appear to be promising signs of the willingness of both the government to make information publicly available and other stakeholders to use this information to engage more fully.

But all bark and no bite?

Unfortunately, the EC’s response to violations has so far been disappointingly lenient. Sharad Pawar, for example, was able to pass off his calls for people to vote twice as a joke and simply apologized when questioned by the EC; Amit Shah was banned from campaigning, but only in Uttar Pradesh. One might have expected — or hoped — that such exceptional violations would have resulted in cancelation of candidature.

So we are observing that while transparency, access to information, and citizen engagement is strong, appropriate actions have not been taken. And hence accountability fails.  This risks creating a sense of futility and frustration among citizens who may get disenchanted with the process.

What we can expect

There remains a great deal of political fluidity, and we won’t know the final outcome until results are announced on 16 May. But there are three possible scenarios, each with different implications for budget advocacy campaigners:

  • The UPA coalition returns to power: Business as usual. Guarded liberalization paired with stronger investments in social sectors. Budget advocacy would be focused on pushing for substantial increases in social sector spending to improve service delivery.
  • A BJP victory: A major shift in economic and fiscal policies. We would likely see markets take centre stage, more rapid liberalization, corporations being taxed less, and reduced social spending. This will threaten many flagship development programs, which may continue but with a greater emphasis on public-private partnerships. Here budget advocates may want to shift their focus to protecting what is there and preventing the privatization of public services.
  • A new coalition emerges: If a third front manages to form a government (most likely with support of the Congress party), socialist policies will be back on the agenda. Flagship development programs would be secure and probably get a further boost.

Whoever comes to power will face an electorate hungry for better governance and accountability — including accountability for how public funds are managed to meet the people’s needs and priorities. People want corruption eliminated and public services improved. Greater access to information is changing how citizens interact with government, and CSOs have shown themselves to be a political force in their own right.

Unless the new government can deliver, they may yet face people taking to the streets with their demands.

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