How dark money is clouding South Asian politics

Campaign finance ratings from the Money, Politics and Transparency project.

The Money, Politics and Transparency project released indicators that evaluate political finance practices in 54 countries, including four South Asian countries: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Together, these four former British colonies house more than 1.6 billion people — almost one quarter of the world’s population. Unfortunately, both qualitative and quantitative data show that the quality of the legal framework for political financing in South Asia is well below the global average. South Asia exemplifies the major trends observed in the overall dataset and in political financing regulation globally: the significant gap between legal frameworks and their implementation, an absence of data about political financing and abuse of state resources by politicians and political parties.

South Asian countries fared poorly compared to the global average as well as other regions. The average composite score among South Asian countries is only 31, compared to a global average of 45 and an average of 52 in the 11 Latin American countries. In fact, Sri Lanka has a composite score of 16 — one of the lowest in the entire sample.

Weak enforcement of campaign finance laws

One of the main findings in the dataset: “The de facto realities of political finance often diverge from legal frameworks.” This is not only true of South Asia, but the region is doing worse than average in almost every category we evaluated. The global average score on enforcement capability is 68, while South Asia’s average is 60. Similarly, with regard to monitoring and enforcement South Asia scores only 45, while the global average is 61.

These South Asian countries have many strong and relevant laws on political financing, but due to a lack of autonomous and strong organizations to oversee their implementation, these laws are often not followed properly. For example, there are laws in both India and Bangladesh to limit candidates’ expenditures, but in reality these laws are not followed. Election commissions often don’t have the authority or human resources to ensure that candidates are spending within limits. In law, political parties in all four parties need to submit financial reports; in practice, none of the four evaluated South Asian countries consistently do. According to Bangladeshi law, candidates are required to submit detailed financial reports within three months after an election. During the 2014 election, almost all the submitted reports lacked itemized spending, such as where the funds came from and how they were spent. There was no investigation of the submitted financial reports, which are often times misleading or incomplete. Without this oversight, the law is essentially toothless.

Abuse of state resources

The abuse of state resources is a common problem worldwide. In our review of whether officials use state resources to support or oppose specific candidates or parties, evaluated under this indicator, the global average score is only 25, while 30 countries received zero out of a score of 100. Only three countries — Austria, Sweden and the U.K. — received a perfect score. And not surprisingly, South Asia is doing even worse. The average score across the four South Asian countries: only 12.5.

Bangladesh India Pakistan Sri Lanka South Asia average Latin America average Africa average Europe average
Composite score 41 31 37 16 31 52 30 51
In law 56 43 50 21 42.5 67.5 39 63
In practice 33 28 28 11 25 42 26 50
A chart listing out Money, Politics and Transparency project scores of South Asian countries, compared to other select areas. (Data: MPT)

While the use of state resources have been prohibited in election campaigns in all South Asian countries except for India, this law is rarely followed. In Pakistan, for instance, government-backed candidates used state helicopters to distribute pamphlets. Similar incidents of using official helicopters for election campaigns have been reported in Botswana, Malawi and Ecuador. Instead of a law, India has a Model Code of Conduct, which has proved to be inadequate to limit the abuse of state resources. The misuse of state resources is so extreme in India that the country got one of the lowest scores in this category.

Anonymous contributions cloud elections

Throughout the dataset, publicly disclosed campaign contribution and expenditure information is rarely available and likely inaccessible. This observation holds true across the whole region; South Asia scores only 33 for data availability, whereas the average global composite score is 45.

Anonymous contribution in election campaigns is a big issue in all four countries. These contributions are difficult to control and can seriously damage the transparency of political finance. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, candidates need to disclose the name of the donors, although this list of donors is rarely submitted to the authorities. But in the other two countries, there is no law limiting or banning the anonymous contribution. Between 2004 and 2011 in India, over 75 percent of total contributions to major Indian political parties were put under the label of “unknown sources.” In the 2014 general election, around $5 billion USD was spent, and analysts estimate that 30 percent of that (10,000 crore Indian rupee or $1.5 billion USD) came from “anonymous sources.”

Even where some level of data is available regarding financial information on political parties or candidates, these published datasets are generally not machine-readable. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, for instance, any data on electoral candidates can be found only in PDF format.

Election commissions need to be independent

Finally, a major challenge for the region’s countries can be found in insufficiently independent election commissions. Having strong and autonomous election commission can lessen the influence of money on politics in three important ways. First, election commissions are responsible for ensuring accountability; weak election commissions are not empowered to do this. For example, the Indian Election Commission could not take action against two major parties (the Congress and the BJP) even though they had not submitted the required audited reports on party income and expenditure since 2010, as the commission has no authority to take actions against these parties. Second, an independent election commission with enough legislative power can limit the abuse of state resources by politicians. In 2014, the Election Commission of Pakistan  took notice of one candidate’s use of state resources and planned to investigate whether the candidate had violated the rules or not. Although this kind of action is rarely seen (and even more rarely shows proper followthrough), it has the potential to mitigate the abuse of state resources.

Third, a major responsibility of election commission is to bridge the gap between de jure laws and de facto reality. If an election commission is not independent enough, it cannot enforce the laws no matter how appropriate they may be. For instance, even though Bangladesh has relatively strong de jure laws (the country scored 56 in the law section, higher than all of its neighbors), it does not properly enforce those laws since the election commission is not independent, ultimately affecting the reality in practice. In South Asia, only India has a comparatively strong and somewhat independent election commission. The effects of this more powerful election commission is reflected in the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity report, where India ranks at 55 out of 127 countries, beating Bangladesh (ranked 113) and Pakistan (ranked 89).


Countering dark money’s deepening role in political financing is a major challenge, not only in South Asia but globally. However, movement by opposition parties and grassroots movements provide reasons to be hopeful about the future as well. For instance, in India, Aam Aadmi Party (“Common Man’s Party”) gained a foothold in national politics because of their stance on anti-corruption issues and political financing. Unlike other parties, AAP regularly publishes their financing reports online. Civil society actors in Bangladesh are also working to tackle the troubling role of money in politics. Despite the clear obstacles present in working to address these issues, these groups may pave the way for reform in South Asia.