During the 2011 assembly polls, the Election Commission had claimed before the Madras high court that a senior DMK leader was involved in distributing cash in police jeeps and ambulances and hence it needed to search his residence.
The DMK got a stay against the EC warrant, arguing that it will provide ammunition to the Opposition and thereby disturb the electoral level-playing field. And that was enough to tie the hands of the EC.
Five years later, not much has changed in the poll-bound states as the EC does not have sufficient powers to curb the use of black money in India’s electoral politics.
A similar incident cropped up recently in Assam, where state minister Rockybul Hussain is under the EC lens for unaccounted cash. But the poll watchdog is being accused by the Congress of acting at the “behest” of the BJP-led central government.
“We cannot debar a candidate from contesting even if we have credible evidence of black money being used by him or her,” says a senior EC official not wanting to be named. “Action can be taken only under the Income Tax Act, which is a long process and has no bearing on the person’s electoral prospects.”
In the fortnight since the latest polls were announced, the EC has seized Rs 13.4 crore unaccounted cash with more than half of it coming from Tamil Nadu. Rs 4.7 crore has been seized in Kerala and smaller amounts from political activists in Assam, West Bengal and Puducherry.
In 2011, the EC had seized Rs 60 crore in Tamil Nadu alone, where several voters woke up to find a ` 500 note tucked in their morning newspaper. This was apart from the shirts, dhotis and electrical appliances that parties doled out to voters in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The EC had admitted in an affidavit before the Madras high court that the cash seized was just 10% of the black money used in the polls.
“We estimate that the use of black money would be much more than last time, especially in states where the contest is close,” says the EC functionary, adding that the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) and the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) — agencies under the Union finance ministry — have been asked to provide inputs to the EC appointed expenditure observers.
Former chief election commissioner TS Krisnamurthy says the use of black money in poll-bound states, especially Tamil Nadu, has been “unprecedented”. “More than what the EC is doing is needed,” he adds.
The impact of black money in polls can be gauged from reports of the Association for Democratic Reforms, which showed that richer the candidate, higher is the possibility of winning. An ADR report published recently said the average asset of the winning candidates has more than doubled in the last five years.