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21 February, 2011

Curbs on poll spending

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Personal greed is not the only factor responsible for the spiralling growth of corruption in India. The high cost of electioneering also contributes to it. The efforts by the government and the Election Commission to keep poll expenses under check are, therefore, timely. However, there is room to doubt if any new measure will yield better results than earlier ones.

When the last elections to the 543-member Lok Sabha were held, the electorate exceeded 670 million, which meant that each candidate had to reach out to an average of 1.23 million voters. With the population rising and the number of constituencies remaining constant, the size of the electorate grows from poll to poll.

Some of the measures taken to limit the role of money power in elections actually did more harm than good. As contributions by the rich were suspect, political donations by companies were banned by law. This led to the corporate sector generating black money and channelling it to the parties.

The law has since been changed. Companies can now make donations but the parties continue to depend upon black money. Those who wield power have found ways to generate money, as the scams under investigation show.

There is a ceiling on the expenditure a candidate can incur. It is no secret that many exceed the limit set by law, which is Rs2.5 million for a Lok Sabha candidate and Rs1 million for an Assembly candidate.

There is no ceiling on the expenditure a party can incur. However, recognised parties are required to file statements stating how much money they raised and spent. The statements they give, like those that individual candidates provide, do not generally reveal the true state of affairs.

Going by the returns filed after the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, the Congress, which contested 389 seats, spent Rs3.80 billion but the Bharatiya Janata Party, which contested 383 seats, spent only Rs1.63 billion. While the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which contested 82 seats nationally, put its expenditure at Rs11.47 million, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which fielded 22 candidates, all in Tamil Nadu, admitted to an expenditure of Rs77.68 million.

With money power and muscle power emerging as crucial factors in elections, moneybags and musclemen on whom parties relied for victory, started stepping out and seeking seats for themselves either on party tickets or as independents. The present Lok Sabha has about 70 billionaires and about150 persons who have been involved in criminal cases.

The Election Commission has asked the government to raise the ceiling on poll expenses to Rs4 million in the case of Lok Sabha candidates and Rs1.6 million in the case of Assembly candidates. It is also reportedly considering a proposal to prohibit all forms of contact with the electorate, including door-to-door canvassing, during a 48-hour period before the conclusion of polling, in order to prevent parties and candidates from offering inducements in cash or kind to influence voting.

Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi has said the Commission is examining the possibility of checking poll-day advertisements in the print media. During the last Assembly elections in Maharashtra, some newspapers in the state had carried paid reports eulogising candidates.

A committee on electoral reforms is currently holding consultations at various levels on measures to strengthen the electoral system. After the process is completed, the Centre is expected to bring forward a bill to amend the electoral laws in consultation with the Election Commission.

Law Minister Veerappa Moily has hinted that the proposals under the government’s consideration go beyond the issue of election expenses. The possibility of barring persons involved in criminal proceedings from contesting elections and requiring all contesting parties to disclose their assets and liabilities is also being examined.

In recent years the Election Commission has made arrangements to monitor poll expenses on a continuing basis during the campaign phase. However, parties and candidates have been able to keep themselves out of the arms of the law.

Experience shows that tightening of controls is not enough. There has to be strict enforcement. The crux of the problem is the low level of honesty in public life. Two years ago, official complicity in the enrolment of a large number of fake voters in Kerala came to light. A case was registered againsr the erring officials but the state government has shown little interest in their prosecution.

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