How Can India Cleanse Its Politics of Dirty Money?

India’s 875 million voters make it the world’s largest democracy. Yet Indian elections, though generally seen as free and fair, have become the country’s “fountainhead of corruption.”Parties and candidates spend billions getting themselves elected—current forecasts predict $8.5 billion will be spent in the 2019 election, making it the most expensive election globally. Much of that money comes from illegal or at least questionable sources, a problem exacerbated by the fact that campaign financing in India is a black box, with no transparency into donors or income sources. Recent changes by the Modi government have made the process even more opaque. And much of the money raised is spent illegally. For example, up to 37% of Indian voters have received money for votes. 

The massive amount that politicians are willing to raise and spend to win elections is understandable when the payoff to the winning candidate is considered. Putting aside any ideological or egotistical motives for seeking public office, there’s also a material incentive: studies have found that, in the years following an election, winning candidates’ assets increase by 3-5% more than losing candidates’ assets, and this “winner’s premium” is even higher in more corrupt states and for winners holding ministerial positions. The material benefits of office may also partly explain the alarming percentage of Indian politicians with criminal histories. Currently, over a third of Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of the National Parliament), are facing at least one serious criminal charge, and politicians with cases pending against them are statistically more likely to win elections. Moreover, the ever-greater spending on elections means that winners, in addition to lining their own pockets and saving for the next election, need to repay those who helped them prevail. The more money politicians spend on elections, the more they need to earn back or repay through political favors.

The high payoff to candidates who win elections (often because of the opportunities for corruption) both attracts dishonest individuals to seek office and encourages ever-higher election spending, which in turn inspires corrupt behavior to repay debts, whether through money or political favors. Therefore, any serious attempt to reduce corruption in India has to begin with electoral reform. The constitutional body tasked with administering elections in India is the Election Commission (EC). The EC oversees the election process, and it also can issue advisory opinions (though not binding decisions) regarding the post-election disqualification of sitting MPs and Members of State Legislative Assemblies (MLAs). The EC is also responsible for scrutinizing the election expense reports submitted by candidates. But the EC is in many ways a toothless tiger, able only to recommend actions and electoral reform to Parliament, without any real power to fix the electoral system. 

There are, nonetheless, a few things that the EC could do now, acting on its own, to help address at least some of these problems. But more comprehensive and effective reform will require action by the legislature or the Supreme Court.

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Political Finance Regulation and Perceived Corruption: Some Preliminary Exploration

Corruption is closely linked to problems associated with money in politics. Indeed, some have argued that an excessive/inappropriate influence of money on elections is corruption (even if it’s not necessarily illegal or currently viewed as unethical). Even for those who (like me) prefer a more restrictive definition of “corruption,” it is widely believed that these issues are related. Many hypothesize that countries with weak or ineffective systems of political finance regulation may experience higher levels of corruption—though at the same time excessively onerous, unrealistic regulations on political spending may also induce corruption in order to circumvent the official rules. Perhaps surprisingly, though, we do not have (or at least I have not yet seen) very much quantitative, comparative research on the relationship between the quality of countries’ laws on the regulation of political finance, on the one hand, and the extent of their corruption problems, on the other.

This may be starting to change, thanks in part to initiatives like the Money, Politics and Transparency (MPT) forum (a collaborative venture of the Sunlight Foundation, Global Integrity, and the Electoral Integrity Project). A few weeks back Rick posted a highly critical assessment of MPT’s volume Checkbook Elections, a collection of qualitative case studies. I haven’t yet read that report, but here I wanted to focus on another aspect of MPT’s work: a quantitative index that purports to measure how well 54 different democratic countries regulate political finance, based on responses to 50 survey questions in five different categories (public funding of elections, contribution and expenditure restrictions, reporting and disclosure, regulation of third-party actors, and monitoring/enforcement). The surveys include questions about both law and practice in all five categories; moreover, in addition to a composite index score, MPT also provides separate scores for the quality of electoral regulation both “in law” and “in practice.” (A detailed description of the methodology is available here.) All the usual caveats and concerns regarding these sorts of composite indexes of course apply here, but at first pass this seems like a useful resource, and potentially helpful in teasing out the relationships between political finance regulation and corruption more generally.

Real progress on this will front require careful research design, more extensive data, and the application of rigorous empirical methods—an enterprise for which I lack both the time and the talent. But just for fun, I played around a bit to see how the MPT index (and each sub-index) correlates with the 2014 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Are countries with better regulation of political finance (in law, in practice, or overall) perceived as more corrupt? Less corrupt? I’ll tell you what I found after the break, but just for fun take a guess now, before you know the answer!

OK, here’s what I found: Continue reading