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February 1, 2010

Over the legal limit

It has long been argued that the current limit on election expenses of Rs 25 lakhs (around $55,000) for contesting the Lok Sabha elections and Rs 10 lakhs for the state assembly elections are too low and impractical. Political parties and candidates have asked for raising these limits for a long time. Some have asked for doubling it or even getting rid of it altogether. During the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the media consistently reported that candidates were spending money way beyond the limits, often to the tune of several crores. An analysis of the expense statements filed by candidates with Election Commission, though, tells a different story.

Non-filing or under reporting of expenses

An analysis conducted by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) based on the expense summaries of 6,753 candidates out of the 8,028 candidates that contested the Lok Sabha elections shows interesting patterns. Though the law provides for mandatory filing of expenses within 30 days of election results, 19 percent of the candidates had not filed their expense statements even 8 months after the elections. These include not just the “non-serious independent candidates,” but candidates of several mainstream parties.

Amongst the major parties, 64 candidates from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), 13 from the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and 7 from the Congress Party (Congress-I) have not filed their election expenses. Two elected candidates from West Bengal—Kabir Suman from (Jadavpur) and Choudhary Mohan Jatua (Mathurapur), both of the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC)—have not filed their expenses.

A single quarter-page advertisement during elections in one newspaper can cost anywhere between Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakhs. A single billboard of average size can cost more than a lakh for a couple of weeks. There were complaints that advertising space both in the media as well as on billboards was completely sold out. Just this cost would have taken the expenses of the contesting candidates beyond the prescribed limit. In addition to advertising, there are rallies, posters and other paraphernalia. However, most candidates have shown that they spent way less than Rs 25 lakhs during their entire campaign. Around 16 percent of the candidates have shown that they spent less than Rs 25,000. Only four candidates have shown expenses more than the expense limit (and thereby risk facing action from the Election Commission).

Average expenses of candidates are nowhere close to prescribed limit

When analysed party wise, the average expense of candidates of all parties was only between 50-55 percent (or less) of the maximum limit of 25 lakhs. The accompanying chart shows the average election expenses, by political party.

When analysed state-wise, in none of the states did the average spending reach even 50 percent of the expense limit. The highest it reached was 48 percent in Lakshadweep.

On the other hand, there were about 700 candidates who declared their election expenses to be more than their assets. This includes 150 candidates who declared zero assets but have declared expenses, some in several lakhs of rupees.

The law on expenses

The limit of 25 lakhs includes everything that a candidate can spend in the elections, from personal funds, contributions by supporters, funds raised by the general public and the support given by political parties. It also includes money spent on the behalf of a candidate by friends and family. The only expense it does not include is the money spent on “travel of leaders of the political parties”.

The election law also provides for punishment for not filing, under-reporting, or exceeding the expense limits. For not filing, the Election Commission can disqualify a candidate from contesting elections for 3 years under section 10A of the Representation of Peoples Act (RPA). This does not seem to have deterred the candidates since they contest elections only every 5 years.

Both under-reporting or exceeding the expense limit are defined as a ‘corrupt practices’ under section 123(6) of the RPA and can attract penalties of both a jail term and a fine. Any voter or candidate can challenge a candidate’s win on a ‘corrupt practice’ within 45 days of the result by filing an election petition at the High Court. Not much can be done against the candidates who have lost, however.

Possible Solutions

Election expense statements are the only instruments available in the system to address the excessive use of money power in campaigning. The stipulated time for filling the expense statements by the candidates should be reduced from the current 30 days to 15 days. This will give the public and the opposition candidates more time to examine the expense details. Also, these expenses should be made available online by the Election Commission to make it easier for anyone to view them. When a spokesperson of a national party was asked about the non-filing and the under-reporting of the expenses by his party, he simply shrugged it off, saying that this was an issue between the candidate and the Election Commission. In the absence of inner party democracy, political parties should also take responsibility for the behaviour of the candidates that they field.


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