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Why poll reforms are essential

Current Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora has also expressed his intention to curb the use of black money during the elections.

Kalyani Shankar | New Delhi |

Two things – money power and muscle power – are choking Indian elections and the current Lok Sabha polls are no exception. A recent Bloomsburg report notes that Indian elections would be the world’s most expensive polls. “Many live on about $3 a day, but the race could cost even more than the 2016 U.S. elections.” The final price tag for the 2016 election was $6.5 billion for the presidential and congressional elections combined, according to campaign finance watchdog Open The Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies puts an estimate of over Rs 50,000 crore for the current 2019 poll expense, a 40 per cent jump from 2014.

The role of black money in the Indian electioneering system is not only notorious but also a cause for concern. The Election Commission’s efforts to curb money power have hardly succeeded. The Commission data reveals that even in the current polls seizures of cash, gold, silver and liquor (from March 10 when the Model Code of Conduct had kicked in till now) have already crossed Rs 600 crores, double the amount seized during the 2014 polls. Besides nearly 52,000 kilograms of drugs, worth Rs 1,000 crore, have also been seized. Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have witnessed the largest seizures so far. Illegal money is transported by being hidden in even ambulances.

At the time of demonetisation, the government argued that it would curb illegal money but these seizures prove that it was not so. In fact, former Chief Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat while laying down office last year said that demonetisation had had absolutely no impact on black money.

Interestingly the Commission has introduced many measures to curb illegal money in the past three decades and more. It put limits on election spending: Rs 50 lakh-70 lakh per Lok Sabha candidate, and Rs 20 lakh-28 lakh per assembly candidate, depending on the state. However, the candidates submit only a fraction of their real expense. They spend money on logistics, hiring crowds, wages of political workers and food, etc. 2014 was the first digital and social media election and expenses have grown now.

It is clear that private sources of campaign funding have also grown alarmingly. There is rise in self- financing candidates, who are multi-millionaires, in the fray. In fact, the number of crorepati Lok Sabha MPs has increased from 30 per cent in 2004 to 82 per cent in 2014. Only those with deep pockets can afford to contest, as each candidate spends anywhere between Rs 10 to Rs 15 crore besides giving donations to their party.

Ironically, while candidates have a cap on expenditure, political parties have no limit. Parties like the BJP and the Congress spend huge amounts on campaigning. Apart from these, candidates spend astronomical amounts in luring voters by giving them bribes. They include cash, liquor, luxury goods, mobile phones, computers, television sets, mixers, cycles, and many other items of use. The political parties, particularly those from the south, have fine-tuned the art of giving bribes from cash to gifts and even gold for manglasutra. A household with four voters could get a minimum of Rs 10,000 for their votes or even more. The voters, particularly from the lower strata of society, have gotten used to taking these gifts from the candidates who are willing to bribe them but vote for whoever they want.

Current Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora has also expressed his intention to curb the use of black money during the elections. “There is a greater need to have synergy amongst various enforcement agencies so that a collective strategy is developed to fight this menace, ” he said recently.

The government too had introduced some measures to curb money power in 2017. It limited cash donations to Rs 2000 per head from the earlier Rs 20,000. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced an electoral bonds scheme. Anyone can buy these bonds and gift them to political parties. As expected, the BJP got almost 90 per cent of these bonds. But the scheme has flaws and has little transparency. The law imposes no limit on the quantum of cash donations. The Election Commission itself has expressed doubts in its affidavit to the Supreme Court where the case is pending. The Congress in its manifesto has vowed to scrap the bonds scheme if it comes to power.

It is evident that the current regulatory mechanisms are not enough to curb the growing influence of black money in elections. As each election comes there is greater need to address this problem and urgency for all stakeholders to come up with a wholesale reform of the campaign finance system.

The Commission should ensure rigorous implementation of the existing laws. Former CEC T.N. Seshan had shown them the way during his tenure. One idea could be state funding of elections but unfortunately there are no takers in the political parties for electoral reforms, which need urgent attention.