Book review: Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav, eds. Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India

Date01 December 2019
AuthorAnupama Roy
Published date01 December 2019
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Book Reviews 283
The Election Commission of India has always commanded respect since Sukumar Sen was selected
to lead the first general elections as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). Occasional political
aspersions apart from the ECI have been doing a remarkable job. E. Sridharan and Milan Vaishnav
rightly flag the post-1989 rise in its stock, more particularly after T. N. Seshan took over as the CEC in
December 1990. In 1989, the ECI was made multi-member, reverting to a single member body in 1991,
and then back to its multi-member avatar in 1993, reportedly to rein in T. N. Seshan. After that, it has
continued to be an island of non-partisanship, till questions were raised recently. The authors, in a
detailed informative and critical analysis, credit the constitution for creating a robust EC that has stood
the test of critical times, though the dangers of packing it with pro-regime mandarins and conflict among
the members remain.
The value of T. R. Raghunandan’s concluding chapter on local government—that could have been the
foundation of India’s democratic governance and institutional design, but unfortunately has continued to
be its weakest link even after seven decades of independence and 66 years of constitutional government—
is that he focusses on the steps to be taken to strengthen it. He rightly stresses the demand for financial
transparency from the local level, with honoraria for elected representatives, who are already working as
executives, from finances to be raised by the empowered local bodies themselves; sufficient staff for
these institutions; an emphasis on ‘local innovations’ institutional arrangements and experiments with
‘horizontal learning and use of social media’ to empower and energize the local bodies.
The essays in the volume, though each of a monograph size, pack a lot of detail and analysis about
11 key institutions in India. The volume should be essential reading for graduate and research students
and scholars.
Ajay K. Mehra
Atal Bihari Vajpayee Senior Fellow,
Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav, eds. Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India. Delhi, India: Oxford
University Press. 2018. 324 pages. `750. ISBN: 9780199487271.
DOI: 10.1177/2321023019874919
The Indian democracy has often been described as precarious and fragile. The idioms in which politics in
India is conducted have been considered incomprehensible and inscrutable by some scholars. Others have
argued that the culture of politics in India is distinctive, marked by enduring traditions of trust, tolerance
and pluralism. These traditions, they argue, have made Indian democracy inherently stable, despite the
conflicts that characterize the institutional space of democracy. More recently, the institutional space of
democracy has been described in terms of dissonance, referring to the growing distrust of political
institutions and politicians among people, even as their enhanced participation in elections has led to the
consolidation of the electoral system. Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav’s anthology on political finance
in India opens up the possibility of understanding the processes through which this dissonance gets installed
in Indian democracy.
How much does democracy cost in India? Kapur and Vaishnav inform us that the ‘price tag’ of the
2014 general election in India was US$5 billion—more than double the amount spent in 2009 (p. 4).
The increase in election spending, they argue, corresponds with heightened electoral competition and

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