Corruption generates black money. Black money in turn funds elections. The elected makes good on the expense by being corrupt, thereby corrupting others in the process. There’s no disputing this infallible vicious cycle, that has now become part of the folklore in our country.
As former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), SY Quraishi, had said, “Money power in elections is one of the biggest sources of corruption in the country and although there is a legal limit to expenditure, we know anecdotally that much above the limit is often spent.”
His views are reflected by most other CECs as well. But despite recognising the problem, as Quraishi said, the politicians and candidates continue to fudge the accounts, hence sustaining the scourge.
So when the Narendra Modi government declared a war on black money with their demonetisation drive, why was the Election Commission (EC) not empowered to clamp down on corruption and black money employed during elections? Does it not fall into the ambit of the stated purpose? Why was demonetisation limited to destroying the chests of counterfeit currency that fund terror, when it could've also been used as an opportunity to cleanse the system?
As reported by The The Indian Express, the Law Ministry shot down a proposal from the EC on Monday that permanently empowered it to cancel elections in case there was credible evidence of voters being bribed.
The refusal, though reported post-demonetisation, had been conveyed well before the step was taken – the letter to the EC was dated 28 September. But it is not the chronology but the intent that is relevant here.
It's not as if the EC cannot cancel elections presently. It had cancelled elections in two Tamil Nadu Assembly constituencies, Aravakurichi and Thanjavur, in May this year following a seizure of large sums of money. But the move was unprecedented, and was postponed twice before the notification for those constituencies was eventually rescinded.
The EC does not possess permanent legal power to cancel such elections as the government has to approve its proposals. That it refused to grant the EC its requirement raised eyebrows, especially if you see it in the context of the current demonetisation wave. If the EC was empowered, in tandem with the demonetisation, then the scare among the corrupt would have been wider and much deeper.
The Deccan Chronicle reported that, “the Commission usually takes such a harsh step when there are evidences that muscle power has been used to influence voters. But cancelling polls following use of money to induce voters is so far unheard of.” The Law Ministry has now told the EC that, “It may not be advisable to compare booth capturing with allegations of bribery of voters since the circumstances are incomparable.”
The perspectives of the Law Ministry and the EC clearly differ. The former has said that it would “be desirable to maintain status quo”, for “allegations of bribery are a matter of investigation and proof”, and that it cannot be compared with booth capturing – that currently warrants the cancellation of polls. But, as asked by an unnamed EC source quoted in TheIndian Express report, “Is booth capturing not a matter of investigation and proof?”
It's possible that this is not the last we hear on the matter as the EC, regardless of who heads it and who its members are, has a tendency to quietly push on issues it considers important to cleanse the system. Though it is also true that bribery is and has been an inherent problem of the elections, as money is used to overcome the ideological resistance of voters or to persuade those not inclined to vote.
During its crackdown on bribe money in Tamil Nadu this year, the EC had seized Rs 7.12 crore in cash, 429 litres of liquor, 33.256 kg of silver from Aravakurichi and Rs 75.20 lakh in cash, 2,145 litres of liquor from Tanjavur, apart from one lakh saris and dhotis. That apart, Rs 200 crore was seized in the state overall by the EC making it, as had been reported then, the largest haul of money purported for influencing an Assembly poll.
These numbers would make anyone gasp, but then again, we as a country are used to taking it all in our stride for use of money to influence elections is routine. Ask any voter, and any politician who is willing to admit it, and they will reveal the same.
The difficulty is that despite the near universal use of money as a major influencer in elections, the EC has not been able to do much about it on the scale it ought to have. In lieu of the current demonetisation wave, the Centre’s reluctance, nay refusal, to empower the EC to clamp down on black money in politics does raise eyebrows.