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HindustanTimes Tue,25 Nov 2014

Maharashtra polls could be an expensive affair

Shailesh Gaikwad, Hindustan Times  Mumbai, August 23, 2014
First Published: 00:58 IST(23/8/2014) | Last Updated: 07:46 IST(23/8/2014)

The upcoming elections to the Maharashtra assembly, likely in October-November, could turn out to be one of the most expensive in India’s history, given the high stakes involved. This raises the question: Where is all the money coming from? The answer is not as clear cut.

According to political leaders and experts HT spoke to, more than Rs. 2,000 crore could be spent in the contest for 288 seats, which is mainly between the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) a strong challenger at least in some areas.

The expenditure limit set by the EC is Rs. 28 lakh for a candidate, but nominees of the big parties could spend anywhere between Rs. 2 crore and Rs. 10 crore each.

The expenditure would be higher in big cities compared to rural constituencies.

Sources in political parties say that even if the total spend by all the candidates in a constituency is set at a conservative Rs5 crore, the figure for the state would be nearly Rs. 1,500 crore.

So, who’s paying for it? In Maharashtra, funds are sourced from contractors building irrigation and road projects, traders’ lobbies and corporate houses. But most of it comes from the real estate sector, which is big in Mumbai, Pune and some other cities.

The BJP accuses the Congress of milking the real estate sector by manipulating clearances. The Congress, in turn, accuses the BJP of cosying up to big business houses.

“For the past decade, we have seen a pattern. Policy decisions and clearances for the real estate sector are delayed endlessly and then done just weeks before elections. Even now, the government has taken several decisions on the real estate sector in the past two months. This is nothing but efforts to raise funds ahead of the elections,” alleges the leader of the opposition in the legislative council, Vinod Tawde, who is from the BJP.

The Congress denies the allegations and, in turn, accuses the BJP of furthering the agenda of certain corporate houses for obvious reasons. “People appreciate chief minister Prithviraj Chavan for his clean image. It is the BJP which is hand-in-glove with certain industrialists.

And all of us have seen the high-profile campaign they unleashed ahead of the Lok Sabha elections,” says Congress spokesman Sachin Sawant.

Ruling parties also have ways of doling out government funds to various groups, for example to cooperatives run by politicians in Maharashtra. Opposition parties allege that these funds are either siphoned off to use in elections or to influence voters who are members of the cooperatives. In the past few weeks, the Congress-NCP government has allocated more than Rs. 400 crore to cooperatives.

Read: Uddhav trying hard to bring satraps on board

Activists also question the coincidence that various public works contracts are awarded by governments and civic bodies just ahead of the elections. In the past seven months, the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra sanctioned cost escalation in irrigation contracts amounting to about Rs. 1,000 crore. And, the Shiv Sena-BJP-ruled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation on Thursday cleared road contracts worth Rs. 620 crore without discussing the proposal. Some more are in the pipeline.

Anecdotes are rife about how targets are set and funds are collected by chief ministers, party treasurers or small groups of party members or by candidates themselves locally, but these are near-impossible to pin down. And political parties are quick to deny any such system exists.
 
Will the EC be able to control expenditure and check malpractices?  Those who are working on electoral reforms say the lacunae in our laws allow politicians to escape scrutiny.

“Under our electoral laws, an individual has to disclose his expenditure but there is no such compulsion on political parties. This is a lacuna,” said Ajit Ranade, founder and trustee of the Association for Democratic Reforms, which works for electoral and political reforms. “Electoral reforms are pending. Unless they are adopted such lacunae will exist,” he added.

Read: Rane calls BJP govt ‘two-faced’, Cong campaign to start on Sept 1


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