Why Not Auction Parliament Seats?

 At length corruption, like a general food
(So long by watchful ministers withstood).
Shall deluge all, and avarice, creeping on,
Spread like low-born mist, and blot the sun.
                                        - Alexander Pope, English poet (1688-1744).
Now that the fifth and last voting day is over on May 13 and India awaits the results of the poll for 543 parliamentary seats on May 16, it is relevant to introspect on the just concluded elections and examine if there can be any improvement over the present method of electing our rulers. Before that a brief historic perspective is in order.
Around the same time as Pope wrote the above opening lines, Sir Robert Walpole, English statesman and parliamentarian, with reference to his fellow MPs, was to say: “All those men have their price”. But the price was modest. For, another English statesman, Benjamin Disraeli (1805-1881) spoke of “Sweet simplicity of three per cents”, echoing an earlier statement of English jurist, John Scott (1751-1838) about “The elegant simplicity of three per cents”. Today, if one mentions three per cents, he would be laughed out as ignoramus or naïve. If anything, the probity of our MPs today has been declared negatively by our MPs themselves. And what is true of MPs holds true in the case of MLAs and other elective classes down to the Panchayat level
On October 21, 2008, BJP MP, Babubhai K Katara, was expelled from Lok Sabha after an inquiry committee of the House held him guilty of grave misconduct for trying to illegally take two people on the passports of his wife and son. According to the motion for his ouster, he “committed an act of grave misconduct which has brought disrepute to and maligned the image of the entire fraternity of legislators”. Earlier, 10 members had been expelled in the cash-for-questions scam exposed through a string operation by a TV channel.
On October 20, 2008, the then Chief Election Commissioner, N Gopalaswamy, had said that 18.18% of the candidates who stood for Lok Sabha elections in 2004 had criminal cases pending against them and in UP, during election for State assembly in 2007, the corresponding figure  was 38.30%. We had the ugly scenario of MPs coming from jails to vote in the 2008 confidence vote. In the latest election, 1,114 candidates with criminal record contested the election, which is about 15% of the total candidates. Though this seems a reduction from the earlier position, the latest election is marred by the menace of money. The criminals get into the fray because of their “resourcefulness”, with their money power being exploited by the parties to the hilt – never mind the morality or the lack of it.
Historically, parliamentarians, like in England, were gentlemen of leisure and honour. As pointed out by Walter Baghot, English writer (1561-1626): “Parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people”. The parliamentarians of the day were men of property, means and higher education. They occupied high moral pedestal. Today, we have some MPs with criminal backgrounds and several charge-sheets against them lie dormant in sluggish and appeal-ridden courts. The idle people noted by Baghot didn’t draw their livelihood from the state treasury. In contrast, present-day MPs live off the public treasury with fat salaries and perks which get revised with great frequency and haste. Sessions of the outgoing parliament, otherwise marked by wide disturbances and frequent adjournments, saw rare unity among MPs in voting for themselves obscene extras. While such treasury largesse adds up to a king’ ransom, there is also a Rs. 2-crore constituency development fund per MP per year (now sought to be increased to Rs. 6 crores) which is open to wide manipulation and misuse. This power of direct dole gives undue advantage to the incumbent MP and works against his election challengers. Even with all these, MPs have been caught on camera taking bribes for asking question in Parliament.

To reap this rich harvest you have to sow in the form of election expenses. There is a ceiling of Rs. 25 lakhs per candidate. But the path to Parliament is paved with splurge of money far beyond the limits and manifests itself in many ways – buying votes with cash, giving expensive goodies like booze, biryanis, sarees and even TVs and jewelry. The latest election malpractice is to buy news and features space in newspapers and TV channels, paying for the fake editorial coverage at ad rates – and cheating ignorant readers and viewers in the bargain. And all this doe not end with winning the elections. In the context of hung Parliament, a curse of our democracy in recent years, there is large-scale horse-trading with stakes running into crores and allotment of plum, cash-cow ministries. Even before the Bible declared that the love of money is the root of all evil (Timothy VI 10), Ovid, Roman poet (BC63-AD18) had noted the negative reach of money: “Money nowadays is money; money brings office, money gains friends; everywhere the poor man is down.” This is equally true today. But, today there is also a  silver lining on this front.
Among the candidates in the just concluded elections, there have been, by their own declarations, 1, 205 crorepatis, with four having more than Rs. 500 crores each in assets. The highest declares assets, by J Mohan Raj, Janata Party candidate for Chennai South, stand at Rs. 1977 crores – later declared to be exaggerated wealth. However, the second place is claimed by Deepak Bharadwaj, BSP candidate for West Delhi, with a claim of                Rs. 622 crores. What he said reflects hopeful future for Indian democracy: “Now that people know that I have so much money, they know I am not here to make money”.
This is where we should turn money on its head and, instead of it being evil, make it an instrument of good for democracy. First of all, for various reasons, what is declared is likely to be much less than the real assets. Thus, we have a large mass of moneywadis as candidates and later as elected MPs. This is a ripe setting for auctioning Parliament seats.
How is it going to work? We had the recent case of Satyam scam and subsequent hunt for new owners which involved pre-qualification for bidders in an auction for ownership control of the company, earnest money advance and bank guarantees for the bid amount. Tech Mahindra beat L&T with a large margin. Alternately, we can adopt the book-building route now commonly used to value new issues. The principle is that the highest bidder for a specific constituency seat gets to be an MP. The money, now going in under-hand, illegal, unaccounted election expense splurge will transparently go to the state exchequer.
What happens to the constitutional obligation of free and fare election on the basis of adult franchise with one vote for one person? Elections on the basis of one-person-one- vote are highly vitiated as the illiterate, ignorant morons vote without knowing the ABC of issues involved. This system treats such mass voters as equal to highly educated and well informed Ph.Ds. So, what do we do with the Constitution? The Constitution did not provide for the progressively expanding reservations. Auction of parliamentary seats is a sort of reverse reservation – allowing people with means to buy the right to rule, with the proceeds of such auctions transparently going to finance the welfare of the poor and needy.
 Once the idea and the principle of auction are accepted, the detailed system can be designed by software programmers. Such an auction system can be outsourced to established auction houses so as to deny our slothful babus an excuse to shirk work on the plea of election duty. It can also ensure continuation of normal governmental development work without fear of breaking the election code over a stretch of two months. What we need is a paradigm shift in thinking on the subject and all other nitty-gritties, including further amendment of the much-amended Constitution, will fall in place.
The subject has many dimensions and is open to many views. What are yours?
John B. Monteiro, author and journalist, is editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger).

by John B Monteiro
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