The Election Commission held an all-party meeting in New Delhi where seven national parties and 51 regional parties were invited to discuss various issues such as paper ballots, limit on election expenses and domestic migrant voting. Other things among the agenda included place of electoral rolls, timely submission by parties of annual audited reports, inclusion of print media as a medium to appeal for votes prior to election and curbing the use of social media during 48 hours before polling ends, gender representation in political parties and progress made in acquiring latest EVMs and paper trail machines.
But the key issue which became a discussion point during the all-party meet on Monday was the funding of political parties and if a limit should be imposed on the amount of money that parties can spend during an election campaign. All parties, except for the BJP supported the idea to impose limitations on the election campaign spending. However, contrary to other parties, the BJP felt that it a cap on spending apparently encourages caste-based politics and is meaningless due to the provision of electoral bonds which mandates disclosure of all contributions that exceed Rs 20,000, reported The Times of India.
Rajya Sabha member and BJP general secretary Bhupendra Yadav and Union minister JP Nadda, who represented the party at the meeting, told The Indian Express that since all political parties have to declare their expenditure in their income-tax filings, “usmein kisi prakaar ki capping nahi lagai jaani chahiye (there should not be any cap)”.
According to PTI, the BJP said that with all contributions greater than Rs 20,000 being reported now, it might well be left to the candidates and parties to report their sources of funding and expenditure. Political parties mobilise funding on the basis of their voting support base and their membership and added that corporate, high net worth individuals and crowdfunding is a consequence of their voter base. "Hence, there is no reason to introduce any cap on such collection or expenditure," the ruling party said.
The BJP, however, said the extent of ceiling on election expenditure of a political party should be discussed widely, keeping in view the several factors depending on the basis of number of candidates put by a party, social-political dynamics, geographical area of the state or constituencies, density, numbers of rallies proposed by the party among other factors, reported PTI.
Senior Congress leader Mukul Wasnik said, “obscene amount of money” was spent by the BJP in the recent Assembly elections in Karnataka, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. He noted that at times the expenditure incurred by the party was 100 to 500 times greater than the expenses cap on individual candidates. The Congress also favoured a cap on expenditure by political parties on advertisements in the media as well as on hiring transport such as helicopters and private planes used in electioneering, reported The Deccan Herald.
Parties earnings only rise
In May 2018, Bloomberg had published a report stating how Congress was facing a financial crisis while BJP's wealth was increasing. Congress had stopped sending the funds required to run its offices in various states, party officials not wishing to be identified told Bloomberg. To overcome the crisis, Congress resorted to crowdfunding for its candidates.
According to an ADR report published on 10 April 2018, between 2015-16 and 2016-17, the income of BJP increased by 81.18 percent (Rs 463.41 crore) from Rs 570.86 crore during 2015-16 to Rs 1,034.27 crore during 2016-17 while the income of Congress decreased by 14 percent (Rs 36.20 crore) from Rs 261.56 crore during 2015-16 to Rs 225.36 crore during 2016-17. But the report also stated that incomes of political parties increased by 51 percent in the year 2016-17.
For the general elections of 2014, BJP spent more than Rs 700 crore for campaigning and publicity. The party also declared the highest amounts of funds collected, reported The Times of India.
Why a debate arises on election expenses?
The debate on whether to cap election campaign expenses is not new and every year independent entities and media reports highlight the misuse of funds for elections with campaigners or their associates spending exorbitant amounts of money for publicity prior to the election. According to the TIME magazine, elections in India are becoming more expensive every year as political parties attempt to woo a younger, demanding electorate. Digital marketing and advertisements were the top expenses for political parties during the 2014 general elections, and according to the initial findings of an election expenditure tracker by the Centre for Media Studies, three times more was spent on the 2014 polls than was spent in the last general elections in 2009.
Election expenditures in India since the 1984-85 Lok Sabha elections have been steadily rising after each election. The expenditure of conducting the Lok Sabha elections is borne by the Centre while the state governments spend to maintain law and order during the Lok Sabha elections. However, there are no limits on the expenditure incurred by political parties and hence large sums of money are raised and spent by them during their election campaigns.
As per The Representation of People Act 1951, a proper account of election expenditure is required to be provided by political parties and contesting candidates to the Election Commission of India (ECI) within 90 days after the completion of the Lok Sabha elections. All registered political parties have to submit before the ECI a statement of election expenditure. Similarly, within 30 days after the conclusion of the Lok Sabha elections, all contesting candidates are required to produce an expenditure statement before the ECI. Political parties are supposed to provide details of total amounts provided to contesting candidates and to provide details on amounts received to the ECI. However, there are inconsistencies in the accounts declared by parties and contesting candidates and parties often delay filing their audit reports with the Election Commission, states ADR in a report.
What re-ignited the debate?
The Election Commission floated a proposal to cap the poll expenses of political parties, signalling its intention towards a major electoral reform ahead of the 2019 General Elections, reported The Hindustan Times on 21 August. The EC wanted the Centre to amend the Representation of the People Act and Rule 90 of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, to this effect. Rule 90 mentions the maximum expenses authorised for parties contesting for either a parliamentary constituency or an Assembly constituency.
Jagdeep Chhokar of Association for Democratic Reforms told The Hindustan Times, “Election Commission’s initiative proposing limits on the expenditure that political parties can incur on elections is very welcome. It is widely known and accepted that over 99.9% of the candidates grossly under-report in their election expenditure affidavits. Hard data exists to prove this. The real solution is to enforce Central Information Commission’s 2013 decision that political parties are public authorities under the RTI Act which six national political parties are blatantly defying."
At the all-party meeting on Monday, the BJP was the only one to argue against any restriction on the election-related expenditure of political parties. At the meeting, attended by more than 20 parties, each was given 10 minutes to make a presentation on election-related issues. The reason that the issue of cap on political expenditure became contentious is that the smaller and regional parties — and other national parties — were of the view that unlimited spending by political parties gives them an advantage over small parties who cannot hire star campaigners or use as many resources as the bigger parties, reported The Financial Express.
Updated Date: Aug 28, 2018 13:32 PM