Calcutta Notebook


Edward Bernays had inherited knowledge about human psychology from his uncle Sigmund Freud. But while Freud applied psychology to uncover hidden themes in the human unconscious, Bernays used these same ideas to create illusions that deceive and misrepresent for marketing purposes. This technology has now been perfected by India's politicians.

Bernays views on democracy are enlightening. He expressed little respect for the average person's ability to think out, understand, or act upon the world in which they live. Bernays evolved the principles by which masses of people could be generally swayed through messages repeated over and over hundreds of times. Josef Goebbels, who was Hitler's minister of propaganda, studied the principles propounded by Edward Bernays while designing propaganda to convince the Germans that they had to purify their race.

He says, "Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps linked with advertising slogans, editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids. Each man's rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others, so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints. It may seem an exaggeration to say that the American public gets most of its ideas in this wholesale fashion. The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda..." So to a great extent money runs India’s much publicised elections.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has tried to break this stranglehold of money in elections by appealing to people directly. This has done wonders in Delhi. But one needs an organization even to collect and coordinate these contributions on the national scale. And, an organization cannot be run without money. If anything AAP has been able to raise small funds from public contributions because it had substantial funding to begin with. AAP was able to use this money to collect more funds from the voters. AAP, therefore is not denying the role of money in elections. They are only saying that they would hold elections with clean money; not unclean money. But money it is nevertheless.

The role of money in elections cannot be eliminated. But it can be reduced. The task is to encourage honest and public spirited persons to contest elections. One way tried in many countries is to provide public funds to candidates. Since 1984, Australia has used a system of public funding of federal elections. Political parties and candidates are reimbursed for their election expenses in proportion to the percentage of the vote they secure, provided they poll at least 4% of the votes cast. States in the United States have put in place various types of public funding. Arizona and Maine require candidates to raise about USD 1000 from 200 persons contributing USD 5 per person in order to qualify. The candidates qualify to receive a grant of about USD 25,000 after crossing this threshold. Hawaii and Minnesota require candidates to raise USD 1500 from 15 persons contributing USD 100 or less each in order to qualify. Wisconsin requires them to raise USD 1750 from contributions of USD 100 or less. These qualifying requirements ensure that frivolous candidates are kept out.

These public funding programs have been found to have positive impact. A study by Kenneth R Mayer of University of Wisconsin has listed their impacts. One, Public funding programs increase the pool of candidates willing and able to run for state legislative office. Many who did not think of contesting elections have entered the contest. Two, Public funding increases the likelihood that an incumbent will not win uncontested. A strong candidate would discourage weaker candidates to enter the fray if they had to put in their own money. But weak candidates would not mind contesting and losing if they got public funding. Entry of these candidates led to reduction in the numbers of incumbents who got elected uncontested. Three, Public funding has reduced the incumbency reelection rates in Arizona and Maine, although the effects are marginal. It was found that number of incumbents winning got reduced in public funded elections. This happened because the number of contestants increased and new issues were raised, in reality the incumbents, could not provide satisfactory answers to these. They conclude that public funding programs increase the competitiveness of state legislative elections.

In another study Anne Osborne of Duke University says that public funding has fostered competition and created a more democratic process. People who would never have thought of contesting elections have gotten into the fray. Many potential candidates were turned off by the idea of having to ask friends for money or did not have the connections necessary to raise enough money to be competitive. These have been encouraged to contest because they can be reimbursed from public funds. Public funding has diversified the field of candidates. This had led to issues closer to the voters being raised in the elections. Candidates are able to spend more time getting to know their voters and the issues that are important to them because they only have to spend a short amount of time raising seed money.

Public funding is not a panacea for all electoral woes, however. Money will continue to influence the outcome of elections. Those with money power will still be able to influence the voters with their large number of hoardings and distribution of cash, motor cycles, liquor and sarees. Yet, the entry of large number of candidates will help change the discourse. Even the money-drive candidates will be forced to address the issues raised by the public funded weaker candidates.

Vol. 46, No. 45, May 18 -24, 2014