Recently, the world witnessed an unusual sight: Mark Zuckerberg, the whiz kid who founded the social media giant Facebook, testifying before the U.S. Senate.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing is the latest development in the wide-reaching investigation into the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The world is quickly realizing that foreign interference in elections is a reality no democracy can ignore.
This rings especially true to India, which is in a similar situation to America.
Last month, in a 30-minute session conspicuous for its lack of debate, the Indian parliament passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill. Buried deep within the bill — clause 217 out of 218 to be exact — was a curious amendment to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) of 2010. The amendment stipulated that the act would now apply retroactively all the way back to Aug. 5, 1976.
Why turn the clock back 42 years on this act?
In a breathtaking case of political maneuvering, the amendment clears the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Indian National Congress from a 4-year-old indictment for accepting contributions from foreign sources.
On the eve of the 2014 national elections — which would see the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi come to power — the Delhi High Court issued a judgment saying the two parties were guilty of violating the FCRA. The parties took contributions from foreign sources, among these Dow Chemical and the British-based mining company Vedanta Resources, which gave the BJP more than $2 million through subsidiaries in India.
Over the next four years, the two parties would engage in a series of efforts, namely introducing amendments through spending bills, to escape the judgment of the court. Clause 217 is the culmination of these efforts. It takes the latest version of the FCRA (2010), which was also conveniently amended through a spending bill to redefine the meaning of “foreign sources,” and applies it back to the original FCRA from 1976, giving political parties impunity from any previous wrongdoing — including the charges brought by the Delhi High Court.
More than being a blatant circumvention of the rule of law, the changes to the FCRA pose a serious threat to Indian democracy. They expose political parties to the influence of foreign entities that have economic and political interests in India. And because India has some of the world’s laxest laws on campaign contributions accountability, the Indian people are none the wiser.
The Election Commission of India stipulates that political donations under Rs. 20,000 (approximately $300) do not have to be disclosed. And though the cash limit for political contributions is a meager Rs. 2,000, or $30, there is no limit to the number of donations parties can receive.
Furthermore, parliament introduced through last year’s spending bill “electoral bonds,” which companies, NGOs and other groups can buy through the State Bank of India and gift to political parties. Parliament also lifted the contribution cap — previously set at 7.5 percent of a company’s average three-year net profit — and made it so companies do not have to disclose their identities or the parties the funds went to. The bonds came into effect April 1.
India’s political parties can now receive an unlimited amount of undisclosed contributions from both individuals and organizations from home and abroad.
Looking back at the 2014 national elections, one can see why this should cause alarm.
In the last national elections, 91.3 percent of the BJP’s income came from unlisted sources. For Congress, it was 93.8 percent. Over two-thirds of political contributions come from unknown sources, according to an analysis published by the Association for Democratic Reforms.
With a price tag of $5 billion — the second most expensive in the world — India’s national elections have become a dangerous money game where rupees translate into votes. Add to this the recent revelation of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in Indian elections, and you have a recipe for collusion, voter manipulation and foreign interference: Not unlike what’s happening in America today.
Yet what is most disconcerting about this narrative is how the FCRA, meant to protect against foreign interference, has been weaponized against NGOs and humanitarian groups. In the past few years, over 14,000 NGOs have lost their licenses — some legitimately, others severely contested — for not meeting the FCRA’s requirements. It was under this act that Compassion International lost its registration. It seems that there is one law on financial transparency and accountability for political parties and their financiers and another one for the citizens.
The clampdown didn’t go unnoticed. Last May, the U.N. Human Rights Council grilled India’s attorney general for the “arbitrary” implementation of the act.
India’s concern with NGOs is due to a perceived threat to security and national interests. Yet, shouldn’t the fact that foreign governments and companies can now inject money into Indian elections be of greater concern?
The FCRA was originally enacted in 1976 under Indira Gandhi’s government to protect from foreign meddling. It was the middle of the Cold War, and America and Communist Russia were vying for influence in Asia. At the same time, India was facing an internal threat from the Khalistan separatist movement. In 1971, Jagjit Singh Chauhan — one of the movement’s leaders — traveled to the U.S., posted an ad in The New York Times and collected millions of dollars from the Sikh diaspora to fund the movement.
Today, China, Russia and countries in the Middle East have economic, political and religious interests in India: India is the second-largest market in the world and boasts the planet’s second-largest Muslim population. Due to its geographic position, India is also the key for influence in the Indian Subcontinent and naval dominance in the Indian Ocean basin.
Every patriotic Indian — including the nationalist RSS, which has remained conspicuously silent throughout this — should be concerned at how India has been exposed to foreign influence, especially in light of the upcoming state and national elections. They will be more than a political race: India’s national security is on the line.
• Joseph D’Souza is the president of the All India Christian Council and the international president of the Dalit Freedom Network.