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June 28, 2013

Limits of election spending

The official ceiling limits on election spending are impractical and ignore the realities of mounting an election campaign.

After filing nominations for assembly elections on a hot summer day in April, a Bangalorean candidate on a national party ticket proceeded to have tender coconut water along with his close group of supporters. Two days later, to his shock and horror, the returning officer of that constituency sent a notice for not accounting Rs 800 towards 40 tender coconuts.

Unknown to that candidate, the event had been captured on video by election commission officials and regardless of who paid for what; the returning officer wanted the candidate produce receipts for 40 tender coconuts. To avoid confrontation, the candidate’s election agent generated a voucher for Rs 800 and complied with the notice.

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In another instance, an ex-minister’s campaign office was raided and all that officials could find were two bundles of 10,000 handbills in excess to what than he had been permitted for and other campaign materials such as caps and badges. He was slapped with a notice and Rs 15,000 was added to his election expenditure.

The overzealous officials have successfully turned the already absurd expenditure restrictions into a total farce. One has to wonder the intent behind the Rs 1.6 million ceiling limit for an assembly seat and Rs 4 million in a parliamentary constituency.

What is the goal that parliament, which set these limits, is trying to achieve? Are members of parliament trying to lower election expenditure to make the field more open? Are they trying to make elections more transparent? Or both?  On the face of it, the limits are there to satisfy some self-righteous persons and organisations. Post assembly elections, A Bangalore-based NGO, Karnataka Election Watch (KEW), harrowed by spending declarations made by winning candidates, said in a press release that “either contesting elections has become cheaper or most of these MLAs have lied.”

Astounding that the KEW was literally looking forward to honest disclosures and it felt betrayed to find that the average ‘declared’ expenditure of winning candidates was at Rs 743,000. Only one out of 213 MLAs had exceeded that limit and that too by only Rs 3000. However, on paper, the ceiling limit seems to have done the trick.  Elections are now cheaper and are far more transparent. How cute, no?

A better way to start election campaign reforms is to first accept that it takes copious amounts of money to mount a decent campaign. Money is probably the main lubricant that churns the campaign wheel. Volunteers are hard to come by and after a few days either they slowdown or just vanish. On an average, an assembly constituency has about 200 voting booths and each booth needs five workers, who are usually paid Rs 500 per day along with fuel and food allowances. During the last two days of the election, the daily wages get tripled.

At least a third of the electorate, in case you did not know, demands cash and in-kind rewards. They usually constitute half of voter turnouts. The caste-based organisations demand corpus payments. So do the women’s self-help groups and other myriad groups. Better placed party workers organize a gathering at their home and the neighbourhood that attends gets a return gift (on behalf of a candidate, of course). Usually, a saree for the lady, a wristwatch for the gent and a devotional MP3 compact disc with Rs 500 note nicely tucked in. A campaign team is alleged to have topped up Rs 250 talking credits to about 20,000 mobile numbers. Creative as they can get.

Money alone will not certainly win elections. But money is needed to stay in the contention. There is no guarantee that individuals will vote for the candidate who gives them the highest money either. But without payment, a candidate stands a remote chance of succeeding.

Money has always played a significant role in elections. In Sardar Patel: India’s Iron Man, the biographer B Krishna mentions a letter written in 1946 by Sardar Patel to Maulana Azad, the then Congress president, castigating him for backing a wrong candidate in Punjab assembly elections when the party had given that candidate Rs 1,00,000 for campaigning. Yes, Rupees one lakh in about-to-be-independent India and that too by the most dominant party then. It shouldn’t surprise us then that senior BJP leader, Gopinath Munde publicly spoke yesterday of spending Rs 8 crore to win his Lok Sabha seat in 2009.

By not confronting the truth, we are forcing our political leaders to be hypocritical. Do we really need government officers on deputation to go undercover to trail a candidate to make sure a candidate accounts for tender coconuts? If candidates are talented enough to land a party ticket, don’t they know how to side step these dumb restrictions?

One former Congress leader and now an independent MLA from Karnataka has declared an electoral expense of just over Rs 100,000. Take that!

Photo: Kiran Jonnalagadda


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