Enforcement being weak, black money held sway in elections

In an article published 53-years ago, India’s last Governor General C Rajagopalachari made a strong pitch for election reforms, deploring the ‘unconscionable and grievous’ expenditure incurred on the polls as, he felt, it gave ‘over whelming advantage to money power.’

He favoured state funding of the elections, saying polls were ‘largely private enterprise,’ whereas this was the one thing that should be first ‘nationalised.’ Decades have gone since the views of Rajagopalachari appeared in public space. The issues remain all the same. Use of black money to influence voters is still a living menace during elections, despite all the legislative and administrative measures brought in place over the years to curb this electoral malpractice.

From narcotic drugs and liquor to cash, politicians have left no means to secure votes in their favour. Over Rs 270 crore unaccounted money was seized from different parts of the country till the eighth phase of the elections to 16th Lok Sabha with highest Rs 127.52 crore from Andhra Pradesh alone. This is about 42 per cent increase corresponding to the figures of last parliamentary elections. In 2009, authorities had recovered about Rs 190 crore unaccounted money during polls. Election Commission described the seizure of over 10 lakh litre of liquor and 1.69 lakh kg drugs from different parts of the country including 145 kg heroin from Punjab alone during polls as something much higher than what was seized during 2009 general elections.

Besides, the number of cases of paid news registered during polls was also unprecedented. Till the eighth phase of elections, close to 1000 cases of paid news were registered all over the country. Candidates were found guilty in 426 cases while the process was on to verify the allegations in the rest of cases in which notices was served on the accused politicians and media organisations.
These, however, only indicate that observation standards of election commission have improved through the years, but the money power has proven to be the more powerful by far. “Use of money power is probably unprecedented in this election. Just imagine the amount of money that has gone into elections this time with reports about the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi spending about a whopping Rs 10,000 crore in their poll campaigns,” said political scientist Zoya Hassan.

The EC has created checks at various levels to curb the use of black money during polls but they continue to remain inadequate in fighting the menace. It is now mandatory for all candidates to open a separate bank account and incur all major election expenses through cheques or bank drafts. Observers from central government services are deployed to closely monitor poll expenditure of parties and candidates as well as the reports of inducement to the electors during the elections. In each assembly segments, an assistant expenditure observer is also deployed to ensure that all major polls campaign events are videographed and complaints of electoral malpractices are promptly attended. Besides, there are flying squads and surveillance teams at various levels including a 24X7 complaint monitoring cell in each district.

Key players

Despite all these measures in place, black money along with muscle poewer continue to play a key role in deciding the fate of political leaders in fray. “Wealth increases the chances of winning, and a combination of wealth and criminal record increases it further as 23 per cent of tainted candidates win compared to 12 per cent of clean candidates,” Trilochan Sastry, founder chairman of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and an academic at IIM Bangalore, concluded after carrying out an analysis of 62, 847 self-declared affidavits of candidates to all Lok Sabha and Assembly elections held between 2004 and September 2013.

There are many loopholes in the system which allows black money to pour in, with one is so gaping as to make the others redundant. For example parties are not required to account for any contribution worth less than Rs 20,000. Now this makes it possible for a candidate to spend, for example, Rs 2 lakh in about ten blocks of Rs 19,999. The EC has enhanced the limit of expenditure to Rs 70 lakh per candidate this election which is not sufficient to meet the cost of poll campaigns, many politicians admit.

So, who will risk the loss at the cost of sticking to the rules? After all, what would happen if authorities catch a van stuffed with hefty amount of black money? “Due legal action is taken in such cases. But, in most of the cases of cash seizure, a politicians’ link with the unaccounted money are not established. So the case is registered against those who were caught with the money,” said S S Khan, a retired member of the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT).

EC has made many recommendations for electoral reforms which are awaiting government’s clearance. Undue influence and bribery at elections are electoral offences under the Indian Penal Code but it is non-cognizable and has provision for just one year’s imprisonment, or fine, or both. Publishing false statement with intent to affect the result of an election is punishable with fine only. Incurring or authorising expenditure for promoting the election prospects of a candidate is also an offence but punishment is a meager fine of Rs 500. In February 1992, the poll penal proposed amendments to these provisions, made as far back as in 1920, to make the offences cognizable and enhance the punishments. In 1998, a committee headed by Indrajit Gupta, a Member of Parliament, also made several recommendations including state funding of elections. All these recommendations are gathering dust in government files.

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