Munde mea culpa: Should EC look at poll spending more proactively now?

Gopinath Munde, Deputy Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, according to a view among most politicians, has been indiscreet in confessing to having spent Rs 8 crore on his election from Beed in 2009. If his speaking out was astounding, the sum mentioned by him is not; it is actually par for the course. Others may have spent even more. The race for office has no limits.

This BJP leader would now have to explain to the Election Commission of India why he filed a false account to say his expenditure was within the prescribed limits of Rs 40 lakh. It won’t be easy, for such money is not received by cheques and spent on invoices. It belongs to the shadow economy whose size we don’t know. A possibility of a claim that it included what the party spent and he had just toted it up for his confessional exists.

BJP leader Gopinath Munde. PTI

BJP leader Gopinath Munde. PTI

How is it that Munde, and like him, almost everyone who spend oodles to get elected, manage to shut the eyes of the observers posted in each constituency to monitor expenditure? They are known to collect, for instance, the rates for so many chairs and a dais of a particular size and height, the cost of so many hours of public address system to be hired and match it to what has been used. It is like an analogous audit. How, also, do they manage to hide the actually expenditure?

Any person of ordinary prudence can smell the cash floating around during an election but it seems to be behind an opaque screen for the Election Commission’s field staff and returning officers. To hide, to cite Munde’s example, Rs 7.6 crore and reveal only Rs 40 lakh is not an easy task. A large number of persons would be involved in handling such huge sums because the candidate himself is immersed in a whole lot of activity, but knows that money was flowing out.

The dishonesty of politicians in this near universal electoral game is patent but we have not heard of over-spending politicians being disqualified in enough numbers, and even otherwise punished under any other law. The inadequacy, or even the efforts of the Election Commission, too is visible. It appears strict in drafting rules but takes the word of the generally untrustworthy for granted. It could do better, especially because it is feared - after TN Seshan’s stewardship, politicians dread the Election Commission.

That mind-boggling spending should pass undetected despite a District Expenditure Monitoring Committee (DEMC) being in place in each district—which has several Assembly constituencies or between one to four-five parliamentary seats, if the areas are urban and densely populated—is a wonder. There is an expenditure observer in charge of a constituency, a deputy DEO in the committee. Either the task is too big, or a mere formality because we hardly know a case where the Commission has challenged an expenditure return.

If the Election Commission has dealt with accounts, it is normally with cases of delayed filing of returns which could lead to disqualification. It is possibly a lapse by those who are not serious contenders or having gone through the unequal battle between a moneyed candidate and the non-so-endowed, decide that contesting an election is not their cup of tea. The disillusionment with the election process can be strong, especially when you are a failed candidate.

It would therefore appear that the various rules that the Election Commission has in place is dependent on being met only on the honesty of the candidates and even with regard to the mandatory affidavits to be filed with the nomination. The candidate’s averments, because they are sworn, are taken at face value, and if it has to be challenged, then it is by way of a counter-affidavit by someone else. Such counter-affidavits are so rare, we hardly know about them. But here, the contents, because they are sworn affidavits, are at face value.

The affidavits require details of criminal cases lodged or proven. In most instances, details of criminal cases are known to the public and few fudge details on that. However, even the financial information is only by averments. Some provide details of their wealth on market prices, say of immovable properties, and those inclined to creative accounting prefer the prices at which they were acquired. Unfortunately, these are acceptable to the Election Commission.

It is almost universal that the real net worth of candidates, especially those who are routinely successful at the hustings, grows in a geometrical proportion without the public not knowing what their business actually is. The suspicion that their being in elected office help propel them towards larger, even ever-growing accumulation of wealth is so strong that it is taken for granted by the hapless voter. Even his vote can be monetised, perhaps explaining the huge costs involved.

Proving corrupt ways to win an election is a valid reason for disqualification. The corrupt ways include using caste or religion to appeal for votes, but more importantly, bribery to buy votes. If votes or voters are bought, it amounts to the gross defiance of the election rule that each candidate has to be on a level playing field. And yet, despite the machinery in place, massive spending which tilts the balance in favour of the person with the wherewithal has not been curbed.

As the Commission says in one of its circulars, the mere failure to lodge the accounts with it, or failure to do so in the required manner attracts the punishment of disqualification, whether the person is a successful or failed candidate. Once it is satisfied there were no justifiable reasons, it disqualifies a person the Commission will not ordinarily remove the disqualification. Then how is it that virtually every politician who wants to win a seat sails so close to the wind and gets away with it?

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