Mixer grinders and Rs. 500 currency notes for every voter in Tamil Nadu, booze for a poor household in Uttar Pradesh or discounted purchase from malls in Himachal — it is common knowledge that contesting elections in India is a huge money spiller, but the Election Commission (EC) records tell a different tale.
None of these expenses ever find their way into the expenditure report that candidates are required to file with the EC within 30 days of contesting the polls. In fact, according to the model code of conduct, candidates have to inform the constituency-level election officer about the expenses on a weekly basis with a consolidated report at the end of the polling.
These rules, however, are bypassed as the EC does not have the wherewithal to investigate the source of money for candidates and where it is being spent. “We believe that every candidate is honest and therefore has opted for self-regulation,” a senior EC official said, accepting that the entire exercise to limit expenditure was a joke.
The expenditure limit set by the commission per candidate for a particular assembly constituency is anything between Rs. 8 lakh and Rs. 16 lakh, depending on the size of the state. Nevertheless, the splurging continues in new avatars to skirt round every other EC restriction.
Earlier this year, at a public function, BJP leader Gopinath Munde declared that he had spent over R8 crore during his 2009 Lok Sabha election campaign. He, however, made a complete U-turn after receiving an EC notice, claiming he had exaggerated and the BJP had collectively spent `18 crore on all aspects of the elections.
Munde’s expenditure report, however, was squeaky clean like most other candidates.
Then there were the 182 Gujarat MLAs whose expenditure reports were scrutinised by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an Indian civil society group vying for transparency in the politics of India. Of the lot, only one admitted to spending more than Rs. 16 lakh — the per constituency election expense limit imposed by the commission.
The remaining 181 claimed that the average expense was anything between Rs. 4 lakh — working out to Rs. 5 for every voter in the constituency — and Rs. 8.66 lakh. But the very fact that around `200 crore has been seized in 10 assembly elections in the past four years is proof that the records are inaccurate.
“The limit is not realistic,” says a Delhi legislator, who did not want to be named. “You have to pay for everything — people for rallies, door-to-door campaign to hiring polling agents. And still there is a danger of rivals buying your person by paying more,” he added.
But even if the EC has proof that a candidate is using black money in the polls it does not have the powers to debar him/her from contesting. And that is why EC officials have started the process of revising the election expenditure limit for parliamentary and assembly constituencies. But that will be done only from 2014 and not this assembly election.