Even legally, election candidates can spend a lot more than what they once could. This makes sense. With persistent double-digit inflation, it is only right that they get to meet the burgeoning campaign costs. This is why, the cap of Rs 65,000 that was imposed on candidates contesting parliamentary elections in 1991, has now been increased to Rs 250,000. But unlike in 1991, today, the capped expenditure figure would not be enough to elect you to a local body, forget to get a seat in the federal parliament. Today, to have a decent shot at being elected under the FPTP component in the federal election, you will have to be able to spend at least Rs 10 million, going by the rough figures provided to Republica by various election candidates. If this is true, it represents a serious setback to Nepali democracy, for it suggests that if you don’t have deep pockets in Nepal you may not bother to run for an election. Not all candidates are rich, it is true. But if they are not, they have to be particularly good at tapping rich businessmen and contractors to amass illegal campaign funds.
But if most of those we send to our federal, provincial and local elected bodies are so beholden to various interest groups, can they be expected to serve the people when they get elected, rather than those who funded their rise to the top? The obvious answer is perhaps why nearly every policy of national interest, by the time it emerges from the labyrinthine parliamentary process, is significantly watered down, just to suit the big private investors in education and medicine and other vital sectors. The Election Commission is the right body to keep election candidates on the straight and narrow. But the commission under Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav has proven to be no more than a dutiful poodle to ruling parties. On election eve, it allowed Congress and Maoist parties to wantonly transfer top police personnel and CDOs. Ministers were seen openly canvassing for votes. The spending cap has been as brazenly violated, too, by ruling and opposition parties alike, again with the commission doing nothing more than issuing perfunctory warning statements. The election body has been so weak and so discredited that no political leader bothers to heed it.
To be fair, even though the commission could have done more to ensure free and fair elections, without the support of the political parties, its activism would have gone only so far. Our political parties are the most opaque public entities in Nepal. None of the big or small parties submit the actual accounts of their incomes and expenses to the Election Commission, as they are required to do. For they all have cushy donations and black money to hide. As the articulators of public interest are themselves controlled by vested interests, people these days are increasingly cynical of the political parties. More than a few of them have started hankering for a Mahendra-like autocrat to ‘drain the swamp’, to borrow from Donald Trump. Political parties should realize that in their quest for short-term gains they are doing irreparable damage to their reputation—and to the political system, they represent.