Thoughts on economics and liberty

Mythical barriers to joining politics

Sanjeev Sabhlok

(This article was published in the March 2009 issue of Freedom First)

The February issue of Freedom First carried some of the best writings published in this magazine over the past fifty years. But most of these writings perhaps fell on deaf ears, for they advocated freedom at a time when few Indians cared about freedom. Indeed, Indians don’t seem to care much about freedom even today. Law and order has deteriorated, and corruption has become entrenched, but defenders of liberty are nowhere to be seen on the political stage.

Since the Swatantra Party wound up in 1974, virtually no liberal has bothered to contest elections. Yet the basic entry fee for contesting elections in India has remained low – merely a security deposit of Rs. 10,000. There is also no obvious shortage of people with liberal inclinations. And while many young liberals with families may be hard-pressed to contest elections, thousands of retired liberals can surely be mobilized for the defence of liberty.

So why aren’t liberals contesting elections regularly and in sufficient numbers? Are they scared of ‘dirty’ politics and electoral violence? Do they believe elections are too costly? I will show below that these barriers are not as bad as we make them out to be. In any case, the existence of such problems is all the more reason for us to join the fray and fight to change the system.

Myth 1: Indian elections are excessively violent
The belief that our elections are excessively violent is somewhat overdone. Of course, there is some electoral violence, but its magnitude is small in comparison to India’s size (we should avoid comparing India with developed countries at this early stage of our development). Of our six lakh villages, only a few hundred will experience violence, with possibly a few hundred people injured and a dozen or two killed. Booth-capturing is also the exception than the norm. Similarly, the Indian Police is particularly good at protecting candidates: virtually no candidate is assaulted or killed of the many thousands who contest. And so, while we should take due precautions, merely contesting elections won’t (generally speaking) kill us.

Myth 2: Money wins elections
The second myth relates to money. We know that many parties spend crores of rupees in elections. Accordingly I was recently told: “You require at least 2 crores to fight a parliament election.” True, most corrupt parties do such things but why should we copy these corrupt gangsters? Aren’t we different? We believe in integrity. We do not break the law, even though we disagree with it (I strongly disagree with limits on electoral expenses). We must therefore stick with the Rs. 25 lakhs expense limit prescribed for parliamentary elections. Raising this amount is far easier than raising Rs. 2 crores, particularly for outstanding liberals with good networks.

Then there is the belief that money buys electoral results. It is thought that basti wallahs sell their votes for “Rs.250/- cash, a packet of Biryani and a sachet of country arrack”. But the reality is that voters take money from whosoever gives it to them, but then vote (in the quiet secrecy the polling booth) for the candidate they actually believe in. I know of a politician who disbursed Rs.35 lakhs in slum areas in Mumbai in a single night but lost the election! In any event, bribing every voter can be astonishingly expensive, costing over Rs. 30 crores per constituency! No one spends that much in any election.

At the broader level, I question why even Rs. 25 lakhs is really necessary. Some reflection will show that electoral results depend primarily on the following four things.
a) The message. While the average voter is not interested in the details of policy, he wants to know what the proposed policies will mean for him. A well-tailored campaign can make a great difference, and that does not mean throwing money around.
b) Time spent talking to the electorate. Good candidates spend a lot of time in their constituencies to build networks of supporters.
c) Quality and commitment of the candidate. Good candidates speak coherently and demonstrate commitment to their constituents’ interests.
d) Credibility of the bid. The Indian voter is highly strategic and doesn’t waste his vote on independent candidates or on ill-prepared ‘one-man political parties’. He wants to know that the candidate he will vote for has a genuine chance of becoming a part of government.

While money can facilitate these things, it is not the key driver of success. If liberals do their homework and work as a team, then even Rs. 25 lakhs won’t be needed to win. Ask the Janata Party which trounced the corrupt Congress of 1977. Or ask the Telugu Desam of 1982, or Asom Gana Parishad of 1985. Many of these parties were formed weeks before elections and barely spent any money, but won huge majorities.

Time to stop making excuses!
If contesting elections is not that dangerous nor that expensive, then why do we find so many excuses? Highly successful organisational leaders tell us with a serious face that they “don’t have the leadership capability to lead India”. If even these excellent people think they can’t lead us politically, then who can? The local gangster?

Nandan M Nilekani of Infosys wrote in Imagining India that he is “quite unelectable” – thus conveniently washing his hands off politics. Apart from the fact that it is highly presumptuous for anyone to assume the response of the voter, all that the voter really wants is a demonstration of good citizenship, not some mythical glorious leadership. I therefore ask Mr Nilekani and others like him to stop making excuses and join politics as good citizens. Give our voters a chance to elect good people.

Maybe (I hope I’m wrong on this one!) some liberals have big egos which will receive a rude jolt if they lose elections. If the idea of losing elections prevents people from contesting elections, let me assure them that fighting elections honourably will be seen by every right thinking person as a sign of good citizenship. Indeed, the benchmark in politics is so low that any good person who enters politics will be highly regarded. Beyond that, the true liberal must never be bothered about victory or defeat. We are obliged to do the right thing irrespective of results. The fight for freedom is too important for us to make our fight contingent on future success. Let us first get out there and fight for our freedoms. Let the fight succeed whenever it will; that is not for us to worry about.

A good liberal platform needed
The real gap today is not of funds or potential leaders, but of a platform where good people can assemble and offer a viable alternative to the voter. That is what the Freedom Team of India (FTI) aims to become. FTI has now developed a professionally designed website ( and well-written brochure. Please take a look at these for yourself and ponder your future plans. Do you want to continue making excuses for the rest of your life or are ready to work as a team to start defending your liberties?

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One thought on “Mythical barriers to joining politics
  1. Chandra

    Mr Sanjeev, I enjoyed this article since I am a young in age. But it concerns me like anything (may be because I have open mind) when you say: Indeed, Indians dont seem to care much about freedom even today. Law and order has deteriorated, and corruption has become entrenched, but defenders of liberty are nowhere to be seen on the political stage. Since the Swatantra Party wound up in 1974, virtually no liberal has bothered to contest elections. some liberals have big egos which will receive a rude jolt if they lose elections. In this last point I have nothing to say except to agree and ponder the validity of these liberals. And I also agree with you on what Mr Nandan said, I have read the book a month back.