Control Spending To Ensure Fair Elections

Despite legal limits on such spending and heavy penalties if
caught cheating, it has not been possible to eradicate the malaise that
afflicts our electoral system which often gets distorted under the influence
of extravagant spending. The call for electoral reform given from time to
time to impart transparency to the process and to ensure that deserving
candidates do not get edged out by criminal elements and wily politicians
who have mastered the technique of concealment, has fallen mostly on deaf
ears. Suggestions to control extravagant spending have not received serious
consideration by political parties, all of whom are equally guilty of
breaching campaign funding ceilings. All of them agree in principle, but
when it comes to implementation, they betray nervousness.
One is not sure whether Mr. Quresi is going to succeed in curbing the
menace, but he shows seriousness in tackling the situation. His observers
are going to monitor campaign expenditure and take sue moto notice of
violations, if brought to their notice, through spot verification. They will
even take notice of media complaints or exposures of lavish spending,
instead of waiting for rival candidates to file complaints after the
elections to get the rivals disqualified. Since the observers will be armed
with powers to take immediate action, they can even disqualify a candidate
from contesting. The outcome of the new initiative will be known only after
the Assembly elections in April are over, but it is worth giving a try.
Any new measure to tackle the menace of huge campaign expenditure, in which
black money plays a part, is indeed welcome, but one must keep one’s fingers
crossed whether parties will cooperate in enforcing the ceilings, because
there are the likes of Yedyurappa and Narendra Modi who are competent enough
to circumvent the law considering the unlimited funding by rich mine owners
and corporate houses at their disposal, which has distorted the electoral
process in their states. The role of black money or even white in the case
of rich tax-paying candidates is an accepted fact and those spending it have
devised ingenious ways of concealing it in order to avoid detection and
evade punishment. It is also a fact that muscle and money-power have helped
fill our legislatures, including the Lok Sabha, with candidates with
criminal histories and those against whom cases are still pending in courts.
Many deserving candidates, who cannot match their rivals spending get edged
out.
Yet, it is an accepted fact that it is not possible for an honest candidate
to do justice to campaigning within the ceiling imposed by the Election
Commission because competition has become intense as almost all contests are
multi-cornered. The maximum expenditure is involved on the day of polling
when every candidate has to ensure that his voters turn up at the booths and
they are facilitated in casting their vote. The cost of campaigning in far
flung areas entails heavy transport expenses and the army of campaigners
employed to contact voters not do it for free. Meetings by rich candidates
become extra vaganza with the involment of bollywood actors and popular
singers, who also do it for a fee accepted under the table. Black money
circulates in devious ways and goes largely undetected, with candidates
taking the plea that those campaigning for him are volunteers and are not to
be paid. Heavy spending thus gives some candidates an edge, aside from
vote-bank mobilization on caste or creed basis.
The Election Commission has been forced to take the inflation factor into
account and raise the limit of expenditure, which excludes the expenditure
incurred by political parties, which is not counted. The candidates also
receive funding from well-to-do Indian dispora, which also comes under
various guises and is not openly declared. Though the limit has now been
raised from Rs. 25 lakh to Rs 40 lack for Lok Sabha elections, the actual
permissible ceiling is much higher considering the contribution of the
political parties. Those who opposed higher permissible limits often argued
that the use of money power should be curbed and that it will not be
possible for candidates with meager resources to participate in the
democratic exercise which, in turn will distort democracy and diminish its
participatory content. The truth is that the really poor find it difficult
to contest even now unless he is popular enough and can mobilize the
services of genuine volunteers to see him through. But such instances are
rare. By and large money power plays a great role in elections, however
freely and fairly conducted.
A suggestions has been made by Congress MP Manish Tiwari that the Election
Commission should circulate a consultation paper on campaign financing, hold
open discussions with people across the social and economic spectrum, meet
representatives of political parties and then arrive at a ceiling on
election expenditure, which must be reviewed after every Lok Sabha election.
He has also suggested removing the ceiling on corporate funding of poll
expenses of parties above the 5 per cent profit cap under the Companies Act.
But care should be taken that such enhanced contribution does not come
through money laundering. He also wants the Government to establish an
independent campaign finance trust to be chaired by a former president of
India, consisting of a former vice-president and fomer chief justice of
India as its trustees. This trust would receive all corporate funding, which
would then be given directly to political parties registered with the
Election Commission.
While the first suggestion is worthy of consideration, the second is
impractical for various reasons. It is true that if corporate contributions
are made in an anonymous manner, the element of coercion is reduced. But,
the point is why should corporate houses fund elections in the first place?
They do so selectively in order to back a political party or candidates who
support private enterprise and are interested in its growth in order to
increase national production and usher in prosperity. They will consider it
a sacrilege if the money contributed by them goes to finance communists or
other anti-corporate Left outfits or candidates. Apart from contributing to
the parties, some corporate houses also finance the election spending of
individual candidates who are in tune with their economic philosophy and
will look after the interests of private enterprise. Therefore, this
suggestion should be left at that because the corporate are unlikely to
accept it, unless forced by law to do so, which cannot happen under our
Constitution.
State funding of elections stands on a different footing because from a
corpus that may be created, a mechanism can be devised to make contributions
to political parting in proportion to the votes secured by them in
elections. This proposal has been handing fire for decades but neither has
the government accepted it, nor there is a consensus among parties over its
feasibility. State funding would presume that the expenditure incurred on
elections by parties will be met entirely out of state funds, which will
automatically eliminate contributions by corporates or others which makes
the campaigns extravagant. Such a limit is unacceptable to the parties on
the face of it and they would not mind state funding, along with freedom to
raise money from other sources. With government contribution added to such
expenditure, it will make the whole electoral exercise more costly then
ever. Though several suggestions as regards state funding have been made,
including contribution to parties, or direct cash transfer to the winner on
the basis of votes polled by him, none has been found acceptable.
Clearly, the present system suits all the parties because they can conduct
high-profile poll campaigns with funds derived from diverse sources without
getting caught. The bulk of the corporate funding for individual candidates
and, partly also parties, is in cash for which there is no account and which
certainly is black money on which tax has been evaded. It is very amusing to
watch members of parliament cry hoarse over the government’s failure to curb
the menace of black money. While themselves accepting cash contributions for
poll expenses.
It has been estimated that thousands of crores of rupees in black money
get circulated in the economy during parliamentary elections and smaller
amounts during the Assembly elections where the constituencies are smaller.
Thus, the will to sincerely deal with the menace and cleanse our electoral
system of the influence of black money is lacking, even though politicians
enter into arguments and sermonize frequently on its evils and the need to
eradicate it.
The election law, particularly relating to campaign financing and preventing
entry of criminals into legislatures needs to be reviewed sooner the later.
The parties owe it to the electorate to join hands in increasing the
transparency, fairness and quality of our democracy and prevent further
deterioration.

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