As we celebrate the smooth working of a massive electoral exercise—simplistically dubbed by many as the semi-final to the greatest show on earth, General Elections 2014—a realisation has dawned that the role of ‘money power’ is reaching alarming proportions. Sure, elections are more fool-proof today than in the past, and most (rightly) salute the EC for managing affairs smoothly. But are our elections free from money and brute power? One doesn’t have to dig too far; shocking reports from the ground show just how distorted the just-concluded state elections were. Consider this:
Actually, it seems everyone loves a good election, especially traders, brokers and transporters. Prices of both goods and services go up. Taxis disappear from the streets. Liquor flows and sale of subscriber identity modules (SIMs) move northward as political parties buy them in bulk. Indeed, thousands of people thrive in election season. How much the EC spent in conducting the recent assembly elections in five states is not yet known. As an indicator, the EC spent Rs 300 crore for the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2012—by most estimates, political parties and candidates together spent at least ten times that amount.
The eyes above Parties now provide live feed of rallies to TV channels. Who pays for it?. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
Of course, this is fuelled by the big money from the companies (see box). Corporates have played a key (some say blatant) role even in these recent assembly elections, especially in lieu of helicopters, chartered planes, access to guesthouses, campaign vehicles etc. Old-timers say the sheer money power in this election is unprecedented. Like the sarpanch in Manideep (Madhya Pradesh) who admits to receiving Rs 3 lakh from a politician for services rendered. Where is all this money coming from?
Candid camera This elections, sting operations exposed some of the doings of political parties. But it hardly made a dent with voters.
At a macro level, unfortunately, political parties are openly determined to stymie the EC’s attempts to cleanse the process. The commission appears helpless. Promising freebies like CTVs, cellphones or laptops and reduction of power/water charges if they win—all at the taxpayers’ cost—are unwise but not unconstitutional, ruled the Supreme Court this year. In fact, the EC doesn’t even have the power to disqualify a candidate for filing wrong expenditure accounts, says a government affidavit before the Supreme Court.
Yet, for the first time in the elections the EC called upon candidates to open separate bank accounts for election expenses. Also for the first time the EC appointed micro observers to assist it at the ground level. In Madhya Pradesh alone, 870 flying squads and static surveillance teams were constituted and as many as 60 constituencies were declared expenditure sensitive. But despite all its efforts, there is general agreement even within the commission that what it detected was only the tip of the iceberg—“possibly around 10 per cent of the actual expenses”, hazarded an official.
The EC monitors the expenditure incurred by the candidates on a day-to-day basis. And when it found that the ceiling has been breached, like in the case of the BJP’s Brijmohan Agrawal in Raipur South last month, he was slapped with a notice. This happened when a Narendra Modi rally that cost about Rs 20 lakh to organise was billed as campaign expense to seven local candidates who shared the stage with him. Agrawal cried foul—the commission, he complained, was acting like a Congress agent!
Now, these notices rarely lead to punitive action. The recent list of disqualified candidates has several hundred names but practically all of them come from smaller unrecognisable parties and are independent candidates. They have been disqualified on easy technical grounds but more controversial violations, such as spending above the specified limit, have been dropped for want of evidence.
The EC appears helpless. The only MLA to have been disqualified by the EC since Independence is Umlesh Yadav of Uttar Pradesh. She was disqualified in 2011 after a protracted legal process following complaints that in the 2007 assembly polls, she had withheld information of expenses incurred on ‘paid news’. The complaint was forwarded to the Press Council of India, which inquired into it and found the complaint credible. A hearing before the EC followed before she was finally unseated.
But a similar case against former Maharashtra CM Ashok Chavan is awaiting a final verdict. Curiously, the Union law ministry argued before the Supreme Court that the EC has no jurisdiction to disqualify a candidate for filing a wrong expenditure statement. Section 10(A) of the Representation of Peoples Act, it said in an affidavit, empowers the EC to disqualify a candidate only if he or she fails to file a statement.
The commission contested the government’s stand and held that it could not be expected to be a mere “record keeper” and needed to question the accounts filed by candidates. Chavan, for example, had claimed to have put the cost of three meetings addressed by Bollywood actor Salman Khan in his support at less than Rs 20,000. While the EC has been progressively tightening the noose, video recording events, forming flying squads and sending the records to the income tax department for scrutiny, it hasn’t been able to curb the high spending of black money in elections. An I-T official even admitted to receiving “too much data” from the EC and pleaded that the department did not have enough manpower to process them. K.J. Rao, secretary-general of the Foundation for the Advanced Management of Elections (FAME), admits that political parties have also got progressively smarter in being a step ahead of the EC. “They no longer distribute cash, liquor and gifts during the campaign, when there is greater vigil, but either before the election is announced or after the results are declared,” says Rao.
The EC has now put in place a media certification and monitoring committee in place to look into complaints of ‘paid news’. A BJP candidate, Roshan Lal Agrawal, who owns a newspaper in Raigarh (Chhattisgarh) was hauled up for publishing reports with banner headlines in support of his own party. With parties and politicians increasingly owning the media, Agrawal’s case is also a test case for the EC.
In all this, the EC has been hesitant in using its power to even temporarily suspend recognition to a political party, which it can do under the law in case of repeated violations of the model code of conduct. Former CEC James Lyngdoh doubts whether the EC would ever use its powers to derecognise a party, even if it has the right to do so. This is probably because such a step would invariably lead to litigation and the EC would be accused of gagging democracy. Of course, with crunch time over, these very same politicians have been first off the block to praise the EC’s handling of these recent elections.
Great Indian Election Tamasha (With Caveats)
While everyone celebrates the smoothly conducted assembly elections, on-ground reports reveal a darker shade of democracy
How candidates break up their election expenses in recent assembly elections...
...And The Unofficial Expenses That Few Talk About
By Uttam Sengupta with Debarshi Dasgupta & Arindam Mukherjee in Delhi, Yashwant Dhote in Raipur and K.S. Shaini in Bhopal
Cleansing the election process is vital to ending corruption (The Truth is Out There, Dec 16). The electorate must force political parties to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to both black money and criminality in politics. The Election Commission proposed state funding of elections, a good idea, but the government seems opposed to it. If honest citizens keep off politics, it’s because the venal political system is forbidding.
Buying votes : grass roots corruption!
Some things cancel each other out. Would not lose one's sleep over this issue. Doubt if the outcome is more than marginally affected, one way or another. Else no incumbent would ever lose an election.
Looks like for media, only CONGRESS has the inherited right to win election, we never see any such elections when conress wins, but anytime any other party wins, they come up with this sh!t! The only reason congress got routed was people are fed up with that white italian lady, who has single handedly destroyed the country , and media doesnt have the courage to point this out!
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