“Cricket owes much of its appeal and enjoyment to the fact that it should be played not only according to the Laws, but also within the Spirit of Cricket. The major responsibility for ensuring fair play rests with the captains, but extends to all players, match officials…”—that is what the Marylebone Cricket Club’s preamble to the laws of cricket, defining the spirit of the game starts with. All games are premised on the “spirit” of “fair” contests. Elections in India and the fact of representing its 1.4 billion people is no game, but it shares some fundamental principles with sport—the rules must be the same and the field even for all who seek to run. There is no honest contest if the rules are distorted, the pitch dug up or the odds rigged.
All discussion on the results of the five assembly polls this month has been about voter behaviour and what those vying to represent them said or did not in the campaign. But the operating system within which the will of the people is determined, the institutional rubric within which elections are held also merit scrutiny. The mechanics of the funding of elections, the role of the Election Commission and the media yield to some disappointing conclusions about how “fair” elections have been or how much they have embodied its true “spirit.”
The quantum of money spent by competing parties and candidates is always a good starting point. Opaque electoral bonds, which conceal what kind of money is coming in, for whom and from where, continued to fuel this election, as the Supreme Court refuses to decide a case challenging the bonds on its merits. It has been hanging fire since 2017 but as there is no stay on the scheme, these secretive financial instruments continue to distort Indian democracy. Ahead of the recent polls, the government-owned State Bank of India sold electoral bonds worth Rs 1,213 crore, making this amount the highest so far in state elections, and second only to the Rs 3,622 crore bonds sold ahead of the general elections in 2019.