In his 2017 budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley emphasised the vital role of transparency in political funding for ensuring free and fair elections. He said, “Without transparency of political funding, free and fair elections are not possible and despite 70 years of concern we have failed to achieve the transparency required.”

In his new book, India’s India’s Experiment with Democracy: The Life of a Nation Through its Elections, SY Quraishi contends that India’s current electoral finance system, particularly the opaque scheme of electoral bonds, falls short of this transparency ideal. Through this and many other themes, he delves into the intricacies of India’s electoral journey, offering a comprehensive analysis of the challenges and evolution of its democratic process.

Money and elections

Quraishi criticises the idea of electoral bonds, highlighting their potential to foster crony capitalism and perpetuate a lack of accountability. The author points out that this regressive reform allows corporations to contribute significant amounts without disclosing their affiliations, paving the way for undue influence on the political landscape. According to Quraishi, the consequences of such a system may lead to a scenario where capitalists wield significant control over the country, albeit in a more legalised manner.

The author underscores the detrimental impact of money in elections, branding it as the “mother of all corruption.” With a staggering 80 per cent of political funds originating from undisclosed sources, Quraishi advocates for exposing and challenging this opacity. He contends that addressing this issue is crucial to preserving the democratic principles that form the bedrock of India’s political system.

The book also explores India’s departure from its colonial past, challenging the notion that it would be unsuitable for adopting a universal adult franchise. Quraishi emphasises the revolutionary thinking of the constituent assembly, highlighting the fact that Indians became voters first before they became citizens. The narrative underscores India’s exceptional journey toward becoming a fully functional democracy despite initial scepticism from the colonial administration.

The 2019 general election brought the Election Commission of India (ECI) under unprecedented scrutiny, particularly regarding incidents involving the breach of the Model Code of Conduct. Quraishi responds to allegations of the ECI’s “weak-kneed” conduct by attributing the issue to the government’s flawed system of appointing election commissioners unilaterally. To fortify the ECI’s independence and credibility, Qureshi proposes the legalisation of the Model Code of Conduct, suggesting stringent legal action against politicians who flout it.

Electoral democracy, an Indian wonder

The author delves into the contentious issue of “One Nation, One Election,” raised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Quraishi thoroughly examines the pros and cons, acknowledging the potential impact on development activities if the country is in a perpetual electoral mode. However, he questions the feasibility of the proposal in the event of premature dissolution of the Lok Sabha, and explores the positive aspects of frequent elections in terms of accountability and grassroots-level job creation.

In the tapestry of Quraishi’s narrative, India emerges as a nation breaking away from its colonial past, defying the scepticism contending that universal adult franchise was administratively unmanageable. The book becomes a testament to the visionary thinking of the constituent assembly, revealing that India’s electoral democracy can indeed be a successful experiment. It is said, he reminds us, that apart from the Taj Mahal, India is globally recognised for two more wonders: Gandhi and its electoral democracy.

Within the pages of India’s Experiment with Democracy, Quraishi’s scrutiny extends beyond electoral mechanics to the very essence of Indian democracy. He meticulously dissects the symbiotic relationship between money and politics, asserting that unchecked financial influence becomes the crucible for corruption. The author contends that the reformative zeal required to safeguard democracy goes beyond addressing electoral financing; it necessitates a holistic examination of the systemic structures shaping political landscapes.

Quraishi urges a paradigm shift, urging readers to envision a democracy not merely defined by periodic elections but one rooted in constant dialogue between citizens and their representatives. The call for legalising the Model Code of Conduct, coupled with stringent legal repercussions, becomes a pivotal element in fortifying the Election Commission’s role as the guardian of democratic principles.

His exploration of India’s electoral landscape resonates as a clarion call for renewed civic consciousness. In dissecting the flaws of electoral financing, he unveils a systemic challenge that transcends political allegiances. The narrative becomes a mirror reflecting the symbiosis between political power and financial influence. His proposed solutions unveil a roadmap toward a democracy where transparency becomes the bedrock, empowering citizens to shape the destiny of the world’s largest democracy.

Quraishi’s in-depth analysis, fuelled by his vast experience and knowledge of Indian elections, sparks an informed debate that aims to guide readers towards the possibility of India not only as the largest democracy but also as the greatest one. The book’s significance is underscored by Amartya Sen’s assertion that “a country does not become fit for democracy but becomes fit through democracy”, positioning Quraishi’s work as a must-read for those seeking a deeper understanding of India’s democratic journey.

India’s Experiment with Democracy: The Life of a Nation Through Its Elections, SY Quraishi, HarperCollins India.