Election Commission dogged by arithmetic on poll expenses

By TN Ashok. Dated: 4/20/2019 11:40:49 PM

The Election Commission, virtually an autonomous institution, has often not known what its powers are, which actually are sweeping indeed. Not until the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi pulled it up for not checking inflammatory (hate) speeches made by prominent political leaders - Ms Maneka Gandhi (BJP), Mayawati (BSP), and Azam Khan (SP). EC then swung into action and put a ban on these leaders from campaigning for two days.
The Election Commission, often thought to be a toothless tiger and alleged by opposition parties as always favouring the establishment (ruling party), had an image change and make over when TN Seshan, a former cabinet secretary, took over as the Chief Election Commissioner. Often nicknamed as "Bull Dog Seshan" by political parties, he was virtually a "terror" for most politicians or political parties, as he would neither bend nor change rules for anyone, however high and mighty.
But the Seshan era was over and things were back to ground zero. A new problem now involves arithmetic on how much a political party can spend or show as poll expenses and how much an individual candidate, independent can or of any political party, can be permitted to spend.
Once the 2019 election poll schedules were announced by the Chief Election Commissioner, the EC made a big announcement on how much a political party can spend on the elections, surprisingly, upping the expenditure of political parties but limiting expenditure by candidates, did it take into consideration the rate of inflation and the sharp- depreciation in the value of the rupee over the years?
In a major bid to limit poll expenses of a candidate in a so-called exercise to provide a level playing field to all candidates, especially independent who don't have political party backing and "access to unaccounted funds", the Election Commission imposed strict limits on the expenditure incurred by candidates (not political parties) on their election campaign.
Political pundits and psephologists expect 2019 Lok Sabha polls to be the most expensive ever in India' political history, besides being the most fiercely fought one with campaigning reaching new lows. A US political expert had this to say: "The combined US presidential and congressional elections in 2016 cost $6.5 billion. If the 2014 Lok Sabha elections cost an estimated $5 billion, there is little doubt the 2019 election will easily surpass that - making India's elections the world's most expensive," Milan Vaishnav, Senior Fellow and Director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank reportedly told India's premier newswire PTI.
Quite obviously, the Commission has now made life rather difficult for the candidate spends , by announcing two such main categories- the first one comprises measures to increase transparency in campaigning such as attestation of identities and locations of all political advertisers, declaration of candidates' social media accounts and outlay etc.
The second category relates to checking misinformation and communication inciting violence or hate by candidates, which includes pre-validation of political ads by ECI's Media Certification and Monitoring Committee and the creation of dedicated grievance reprisal channels to identify and put down controversial content expeditiously.
According to an ECI dictate, a candidate can spend between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 70 lakh, depending on the state he/she is contesting the Lok Sabha election from. For all states, except Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Sikkim, a candidate can spend a maximum of Rs 70 lakh on canvassing. The cap for Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Sikkim is Rs 54 lakh. And, it is Rs 70 lakh for Delhi and Rs 54 lakh for other Union territories.
For the assembly elections, the ceiling is between Rs 20 lakh and Rs 28 lakh. The question is that this is the official poll spend per candidate mandated by the Election Commission , there are horrendous stories of unaccounted money flowing in elections by parties for candidates: take the RK Nagar seat that fell vacant after the passing away of the incumbent former CM J Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu. As faction ridden politics shook the once strong AIADMK, TTV Dinakaran, nephew of close associate of JJ, contested from the seat and defeated both DMK (lost deposit) and AIADMK candidates to enter the assembly. There were stories that he distributed signed Rs 20 notes to voters to encash for Rs 2000 each for every vote that went in his favour. EC cannot work on allegations but there was no credible or visible evidence of passage of money but only evidence of signed Rs 20 notes, that too not very credible.
The expenses prescribed by the EC incudes the money spent by a political party or a supporter with respect to the contender's campaign; however, but surprisingly they do not include the costs incurred by the party (or the leader of the party) to promote its schemes or plans.
The candidates have to maintain a separate account of these election expenses and file them with ECI , EC rules specify specifying that as per Section 10A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, a person can be disqualified failing to file an account of election expenses. Also, furnishing incorrect informationon expenditure that exceeds the defined cap can lead to disqualification for up to three years.
In the case of the registered political parties, they are required to submit the details of their election outlay to the ECI within 90 days of the completion of the general elections and all candidates have to submit their expenditure statement to the poll watchdog within 30 days of completion of the Lok Sabha elections, the Election Commission mandates.
Who foots the bill? The total cost of conduct of a general election isalways borne by the central government, but respective state governments bear the expenses in respect of independent state assembly polls. The Centre and the states divide the total cost of elections equally when both Lok Sabha and respective assembly elections take place.
Past elections' cost : The total (provisional) expenditure incurred for the last Lok Sabha elections held in 2014 was Rs 3,870 crore, three times more than Rs 1,114 crore spent in the general elections of 2009, according to provisional data compiled by the ECI.The Lok Sabha elections 2019 are expected to be the biggest elections with over nine crore people going to vote this time.
The Election has in a fresh missive to the Law Ministry of the Union Government reiterated that a political party should limit its spending on a candidate during election to not more than 50%, or half, of the candidate's expenditure limit. The EC has taken a position that expenditure made by the parties during elections "should be either 50% of, or not more than, the expenditure ceiling limit provided for the candidate", a leading newspaper says in its analytical report of the elections. In the past, the commission had recommended amendments to the Representation of the People Act and Rule 90 of The Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, for the same.
What it means is that, if the government accepts the EC's recommendations, a political party may not be able to spend more than Rs 25-35 lakh per candidate in case of Lok Sabha elections and not more than Rs 10-14 lakh per candidate in case of assembly elections. Political observers say that as inflation rises and the rupee steadily depreciates in value over the years as it has, even the present limits of Rs 25 lakhs for assembly elections and Rs 54 to Rs 70 lakhs per candidate per Lok Sabha constituency is just about enough to cover the campaign costs - social media, advertising, pamphlets, TV ads, and payments to party workers are all spiralling over the years.
Consider the fact, these observers say, a typical north Indian wedding of 500 guests in a pandal cost as much as Rs one crore, minus the dowry that can go upto Rs 5 crore for for an IAS for IPS officer, is taken under the table , to beat the law. There is no guest control order in observance in any of these weddings. Elections are far more complicated affairs, which even calls for major expenditure on security cover for the candidates, whichis not provided for all candidates by the government. Also this new regulation would only promote more unaccounted monies flowing from the parties corpus to the candidates for campaigning, as the official limits is less than their projected expenditure. This works to the great disadvantage of fledgling parties or independents.
The EC has identified unchecked money power as one of the biggest concerns and has been rooting for capping party and campaign expenditure to ensure a levelplaying field for all parties and to check the money power visible during every election. But the new regulation instead of controlling it may only increase the flow, observers say.
Recently, at an all-party meeting in August, the EC received significant support for the proposal, prompting it to write to the ministry again. However, a key factor in the way could be the ruling BJP's position on the issue. The ruling party was conspicuous in opposing any capping at the August 27 meeting. The BJP then said "political campaigns led by parties are agenda-based" and "if this is limited, it would encourage politics based on caste, and individual influence". Currently, there is no cap on the amount a political party can spend in an election or on a candidate.
While the EC has been unable to cap a political party's expenditure in an election, it has put expenditure limit on candidates - Rs 50-70 lakh for each Lok Sabha candidate and Rs 20-28 lakh for an assembly candidate. The election commission had upped the expense limit for Lok Sabha elections from Rs40 lakh to Rs70 lakh per candidate in big states. But 129 or 30% out of 437 MPs spent Rs14.62 lakh or 59% of the expense limit during the last general election.
The Indian government had cleared a proposal by Election Commission to increase the expenditure limit for Lok Sabha elections to Rs70 lakh from Rs40 lakh per candidate in big states. But does it have anything to do with the reality? During the last general election, about 129 members of Parliament (MPs) declared election expenses of less than 50% of expense limit. This raises a question on the need to increase expenditure limit without taking into consideration the blatant misuse of black money in elections.
An analysis by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and National Election Watch (NEW), out of 437 MPs, who submitted their election expenditure statements, on average MPs spent Rs14.62 lakh or about 59% of the average expense limit in 2009.Professor Trilochan Sastry, founder of ADR, said, "Raising the ceiling does not address the real issues. We need more transparency in the funding and source of funding, along with penalties for not being transparent. Everyone knows about the huge amount of black money in elections. We need to curb this blatant misuse of black money in elections. In summary, none of the major concerns are addressed by the Cabinet decision to raise the ceiling."
The bigger states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Karnataka, can have poll expenses upto Rs54 lakh and up to Rs22 lakh in smaller states like Goa on par with other hilly and north eastern states. The government also cleared the proposal to raise expenditure limits for assembly elections, with a maximum of Rs28 lakh and a minimum of Rs20 lakh in North Eastern and hill states.The election expenditure statements submitted by MPs include details of expenses on public meeting and processions, campaigning through electronic and print media, expense on campaign workers, expenses on vehicles used and expense on campaign materials.
According to ADR, of the total of 543 MPs, complete information was available for 539 lawmakers. Out of the remaining four MPs, three were Independent candidates and one MP, Gopinathrao Munde of the BJP died and his expenditure statement was not available on the commission's website.Out of the 342 MPs from national parties, 263 MPs said they received Rs 7,559.82 lakh from their parties whereas the national parties said that Rs 5,523.53 lakh was given to only 175 MPs.Of the regional parties, 38 MPs from 15 different parties either declared they received nothing or mentioned various amounts as received from their respective parties which did not match the expenditure statements submitted by the parties.BJP's lawmaker Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah had declared that she had received no lump-sum amount from her party whereas the BJP had declared that Rs 15 lakh was given to her for the Lok Sabha election.On the other hand, 89 MPs declared they got Rs 17.43 crore, including 71 MPs from the BJP, 11 from the Congress, five from CPI(M) and one each from Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and CPI. But their names were missing from the list of candidates to whom the lump-sum amount was given by their parties.
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