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Party seats, 'payment' quotas

Party seats, 'payment' quotas

Author: T. V. R. Shenoy
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: April 8, 2004
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/archive_full_story.php?content_id=44606

Introduction: Politics was once a mission. Will we see it become a commodity?

The Election Commission occasionally gives the impression of being all-powerful at election time. It orders the revenue officers to conduct search-and-seize operations at airports. It will set up a Censor Board of its own to ensure that political advertisements don't cross the line. These are novel interpretations of its powers under the Constitution, but I think most Indians would back the Election Commission. (Personally, I think, it is a pity some of its funkier ideas - such as including a "None of the above" option on ballot papers and EVMs could not be carried out due to lack of consensus and time. Perhaps in 2009!)

However, there are some areas where the Election Commission is more or less helpless. Try as it might to curb the influence of money on elections, there is simply no way it can rein in one particular form of abuse - the selling of party tickets. If the disgruntled office-bearers of the Congress are to be believed, party tickets are being sold for hard cash in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka.

It was the act of washing this particular piece of linen in public that has led to Sarat Chandra Prasad being suspended from the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee. If we are to give credence to his complaint, the Congress has adopted a money-raising tactic once made famous by the "donation colleges" of the country! These have three categories of seats for students - namely a merit quota, a management quota, and a payment quota. Prasad says that the Congress has taken this one step further by removing the merit quota altogether!

The same allegation has been levelled in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, where the Congress has been allotted 10 constituencies as part of the DMK-led electoral alliance. The difference between Kerala and Tamil Nadu is that in the latter it is allegedly AICC members who are involved, not just regional satraps.

The situation is not quite that bad in Karnataka. But many leaders -including ministers in the S.M. Krishna administration - grumble that some people were trying to buy "safe" seats. This attempt met severe resistance, not least because the stakes are so much higher for the Congress in Karnataka than in either Tamil Nadu or Kerala. For one, the party needs to put up a fight in 28 constituencies, not just in the 17 seats it is contesting in Kerala and the 10 it is contesting in Tamil Nadu. For another, both the Assembly and the Lok Sabha seats are up for grabs. For a third, in Karnataka, the Congress has - unlike in the other states - no allies. Finally, conventional wisdom has it that Karnataka offers the BJP its best chance of winning seats in south India. All this meant that the Congress leaders in Karnataka could afford to be just a little more determined about ticket distribution.

Was there anything more to all this than mere allegation? I believe there was some substance to it judging by the reaction of the Congress High Command. Sonia Gandhi tried to intervene in Kerala; Kamal Nath, the AICC officer in charge of Tamil Nadu, made it a point to keep away from selection. (Given the state of the party in Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath was probably grateful for any excuse to spend a little more time in his own state!)

Going back to Sarat Chandra Prasad, his motives, his credibility, and his timing, have been called into question. But a glance at the Congress panel is prima facie evidence that the management quota is a fact of life whether or not the "paid seats" exist.

The Karunakaran clan has been given its due in exchange for leaving A.K. Antony alone. The patriarch has been elected to the Rajya Sabha. Muraleedharan, the son, has been given a seat in the Antony ministry. The MLA who surrendered his seat for Muraleedharan will be contesting on the Congress ticket from Calicut (which Muraleedharan had won in 1999). Padmaja, Karunakaran's daughter, has been given a ticket to the Lok Sabha.

It doesn't stop there. Karunakaran has had his say in the Ernakulam and Idukki seats. He has chosen Christians - one each from the Catholic and the Orthodox sects. (One of them is a complete novice whose sole qualification seems to be his family connections to a bishop.) It is rumoured to be a barter, with both men asking their respective communities to vote in favour of Padmaja.

There is unrest in the Kerala unit over the candidates from Kollam and Kasargode. The candidate in Kasargode is a wealthy businessman who lives in Bangalore. Interestingly, his son is said to be standing - also on a Congress ticket - from Karnataka. But there is really no proof that any money changed hands in either of these selections, just a lot of snide remarks by possibly disgruntled party workers.

The management quota has become such a familiar component of Indian politics that it has been accepted as the norm. (Think of the Nehru-Gandhis, the extended - and extensive - Laloo Prasad Yadav clan, Karunanidhi and Co, and so on.) But this "payment quota", assuming it exists, is a new factor altogether.

Once upon a time, politics was a mission. Later, it became a profession. Will we live to see it become a mere commodity? Will membership in Parliament become just another item in the jewellery-box?

The Election Commission is helpless to act in these matters given that these are the internal affairs of a party. In the final analysis, the only one who can do something to nip the evil in the bud is the ultimate guardian of democracy - the voter.

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