Growing money power in elections: How serious is the ECI?

It’s no secret that parties and politicians are spending obscene amount of money in elections. The Election Commission cannot be oblivious to it, but it has done little to curb the practice

Growing money power in elections: How serious is the ECI?
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AJ Prabal

It was in July, 2013 that late BJP leader Gopinath Munde claimed he had spent Rs eight Crore on his election in 2009. He was speaking at a book launch in the presence of the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. The Election Commission’s ceiling on poll expenses by candidates in the Lok Sabha election in 2009 was Rs 25 lakhs.

It was this unrealistic ceiling that Munde was referring to. He had said that in his first assembly election in 1980 he had spent just Rs 29,000. But in 2009 he had to shell out Rupees eight Crore.

The admission was embarrassing enough for the poll panel to serve him a show-cause notice. The Income Tax Department too slapped him with a notice to explain the sources of his expenditure since in 2009 his return indicated an expenditure of only Rs 19 lakhs.

For a month Munde evaded the media and sought extension of time to reply to the Election Commission. When he finally submitted his reply, he claimed that the figure he had mentioned was a ‘figure of speech’ and nothing more than rhetoric. The figure he had mentioned was the total expenditure incurred by his party in the state and not by him or any other candidate. He then waxed eloquently about corruption in elections and the responsibility of political parties to curb such corruption.

In public, BJP distanced itself from Munde’s claim but declared that Munde had fallen a victim to a conspiracy hatched by Sharad and Ajit Pawar. Nobody asked how the Pawars persuaded Munde to make the admission in the first place and in the presence of the media.

The Commission and the IT department apparently accepted the explanation. In 2014 Munde was sworn in as a minister in Narendra Modi’s cabinet but died in a ‘sudden and mysterious’ accident in New Delhi when he was on his way to the airport early in the morning on June 3. The accident, unusual in Lutyen’s Delhi involving a union minister, was never fully investigated by the media.

But it is not a state secret that politicians have been spending more money in elections than ever before. The Election Commission cannot be oblivious to it but besides tokenism, it has done nothing to reduce the role of money power in elections. Its half-hearted objection to the controversial Electoral Bonds and its very public failure in curbing poll expenses by the BJP and other parties does not quite require an investigation. Yet, the question remains how difficult it could be for the Election Commission to find out the expenditure incurred by candidates and parties?

The Commission had deployed 88 Expenditure Observers in Bengal during the eight-phase polling. But their reports would never see the light of day because the EC does not put them up on its website. Nor is there any provision to present such reports to the Parliament and thereby to the public. It is time for political parties, all of them committed to probity in public life, to demand a white paper on poll expenses and the system of making reports of the Observers public.

But if the EC or the Government show little or no inclination to inquire into the area, civil society groups may have to step in and collect at least anecdotal evidence of the expenses incurred. People in the constituencies would surely have a fund of anecdotes and information to share.

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Growing money power in elections: How serious is the ECI?

"It must not be forgotten that a BJP electoral ticket carries with it substantial money for running the election. Or for other purposes,” tweeted former Bengal BJP president and ex-Governor Tathagata Roy after the counting of votes. He was criticising BJP leaders in charge of the state for fielding ‘politically stupid’ actors who lost.

Roy was not parting with any state secret. It has been known for several years that BJP spends lavishly to win and provides enough monetary incentives to its candidates. Roy was merely confirming the public perception.

Anecdotal evidence will not hold in a court of law. But they do convey the mood and perception on the ground. One such anecdote involves a small ashram in Kolkata run by a monk who was once associated with the Rama Krishna Ashram. One of his devotees, a BJP leader, offered to help the ashram by routing some of the printing jobs to printers of Swamiji’s choice, who could then pass on the commission as ‘dakshina’ to the ashram. The devotee apparently confided that the party’s printing budget for the Bengal election was Rs 500 Crore.

Since Bengal had 294 assembly constituencies, on an average the allocation would have been a little less than Rupees two crore in each constituency. Since printing expenses are the least of the poll expenses, the anecdote provides some insight into the kind of money splurged by the party in the election.

Veteran journalist and commentator Nalini Singh wrote that conservative estimates put the cost of each major rally addressed by BJP’s top guns at Rupees five to ten crore. By that yardstick, 100 such rallies would have cost anywhere between Rs 500 to Rs 1000 crore. Rallies addressed by the Prime Minister, suggest anecdotal evidence, cost a lot more. Expenses on the polling day and the counting day in all the 294 constituencies could not have been less than Rupees one Crore each on each day. Add to this the cost of publicity, advertising, transport, rental of helicopters, chartered planes and the several five-star hotels booked by the BJP in Kolkata etc. and the total spending could be mind blowing.

How much of it would have been captured by the Election Commission and its Expenditure Observers? The fact is that the Commission has invested a lot of time, energy and money to monitor poll expenses of individual candidates. But a pitifully few candidates apart, it has largely drawn a blank and has failed to either prove and thereby disqualify candidates for exceeding the permissible ceiling of expenditure.

The EC can make a beginning by uploading reports of the Expenditure Observers sent to each state. And also by holding a press conference and fielding questions. The Commission’s press conferences till now are conducted to give out routine information which anybody can access on the website. It is time the EC became a little more transparent and shows a little more seriousness in curbing the role of money power in elections.

IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

Rarely has the Election Commission of India come under such scathing criticism. Poll strategist for Mamata Banerjee, Prashant Kishor accused the EC of blatantly favouring the BJP. “I have never seen a more biased EC in my life. The EC has become an arm of the BJP and did everything it could to help BJP in this election and made our life difficult,” he declared on TV.

“Bring the Election Commissioners to your channel and ask them to give one logical explanation why they allowed eight phases of elections in West Bengal,” suggested an irate Kishor. Mamata Banerjee declared on the floor of the Assembly that but for the Election Commission, BJP would not have won more than 30 seats in the Assembly and not the 75 it eventually won.

She also called for judicial intervention. “We will go jointly to the Supreme Court. We will ask for a Constitution Bench to set some Lakshman Rekha for the EC. How can three nominated persons, all of them retired government servants, be allowed to control the country," she asked. The EC’s failure to enforce the Model Code of Conduct and stop the blatant use of religion in the poll campaign has also evoked sharp criticism.

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