Has ECI taken the colour off election campaigns? - Hindustan Times
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Has ECI taken the colour off election campaigns?

Apr 15, 2024 12:11 AM IST

We are currently headed for the elections, but there is no visible excitement. Is this dullness the result of actions by the ECI to prevent the buying of votes?

At the end of last month, I got the opportunity to visit Türkiye again — an election campaign adding colour to the affectionate environment there. Be it at Taksim Square or Princess Island, the ablution fountain of Hagia Sophia, or the modernity of a mall, people were talking about the election. The streets were lined with candidates’ banners and glowing sign boards. Speeches were being delivered at street corner meetings, and election enthusiasm was prevalent across the media. This was a mayoral election. What if it were the general elections?

Can the ECI contain money power? (For Representation) PREMIUM
Can the ECI contain money power? (For Representation)

We in India are currently headed for the general elections, but there is no visible excitement in the atmosphere. Is this dullness the result of actions taken by the Election Commission of India (ECI) to prevent the buying of votes? Can it contain money power?

Before answering these questions, let me take you to the 1960s, a time when Ram Manohar Lohia chose a new path to overcome the ruling party’s financial power. He came up with the “One note; one vote” campaign to raise funds to contest elections. Under the campaign, workers of his party would collect 1 each from persons attending the party’s public gatherings. Similar campaigns have been run by leaders such as Kanshi Ram and Arvind Kejriwal.

It is an irony, though, that Kanshi Ram’s successor, Mayawati, faced allegations of corruption after coming to power. Kejriwal is currently behind bars facing allegations in the liquor policy scam. Money and the rich have begun to exert a direct influence on our democracy.

This is why money and muscle power gained influence in politics during the 1970s and 1980s. Political bigwigs across parties began cultivating the company of criminals. These criminals were euphemistically named bahubali.

A number of such bahubalis began to climb the power ladder from gram panchayats to the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Data analysed by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) showed that about 29% of members of the country’s 17th Lok Sabha were charged with very serious offences, while 18% of Rajya Sabha members faced such charges. Another analysis by ADR in June 2023 showed that in the legislatures of 28 states and two Union Territories, almost 28% of the legislators had a criminal past.

Politicians have also grown wealthier. The ADR analysis showed that 12% of Rajya Sabha members currently have assets worth more than 100 crore, whereas about 48% Lok Sabha members elected five years ago had assets worth more than 5 crore. Notably, our country’s per capita daily income remains stuck at 464.

The connotation is clear: The common Indian is now limited to being a voter. For many of them, the temptation of money, combined with caste, religion, region, and sect, serves as a lifeline. It is hardly surprising that the amount of money and liquor seized by the Election Commission has increased dramatically over the last decade. ECI seized 190 crore in the 2009 general elections; in 2019, it seized more than 841 crore, a record high. Similarly, in 2019, 18.6 million litres of liquor were seized, compared with 16 million litres in 2014.

In our country, where one election or the other is held every few months, politicians and parties are pushed to spend money in a variety of ways. A top leader told me that during elections, a candidate needs at least two vehicles and a corresponding number of personnel to campaign in one block. In a Lok Sabha election, at least 50 cars must be deployed directly and indirectly. Besides, each block has an office where workers rest and food has to be arranged for them. On the night before the polls, lakhs of rupees are spent providing “meals and drinks” to people from village to village. Lakhs of rupees are spent at one’s own or any other major leader’s election meeting.

Another worthy stated that formerly, the task was done solely through booklets, banners, and posters. Posters and banners have been banned now, but people must be deployed to remain active on social media for the entire five-year period, not only to glorify their leader but also to keep attacking rivals. In light of this, an election expenditure cap is ineffective. Politics is an expensive business.

This raises a couple of questions: Why would big traders or business houses that make election donations not expect any profit in return? What causes the world’s largest democracy to seem frightened when confronted with this issue?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal

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