Members of a political party carry India national flags in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

Capping Political Parties’ Poll Spends: Will It Work?

BloombergQuintOpinion

The Election Commission of India is reported to have “proposed to the Law Ministry that a ceiling may be stipulated on election expenditure by political parties towards Parliamentary or Assembly elections.”

Limits on what a candidate can spend on her/his election have been stipulated for a long time. Candidates are required to submit the expenditure incurred on the election in a sworn affidavit within a given time limit after the election. However, so far there is no limit on what a political party can spend during the election. This makes the limit on what the candidates can spend absolutely meaningless because if the candidate spends more than the stipulated limit, it can always be shown as part of the expenditure incurred by the party.

In view of this, the initiative of the ECI is welcome. A public interest litigation was filed in the Delhi High Court on May 24, 2014, by the Association for Democratic Reforms seeking precisely the same, putting limits on the expenditure that can be incurred by political parties during elections. During the last hearing on April 25, 2018, the lawyer representing the ECI assured the “court that the appropriate action shall be taken in this regard.” The next date of hearing is September 10, 2018.

The issue is not so simple - merely stipulating some limit on what a political party can spend on its election campaign will not remove all the ills that excessive use of money in elections causes. This imbroglio needs unravelling.

To start with, the limits on candidate spending do not really serve any purpose. 

This is best illustrated by a widely known statement, attributed to the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, “Every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files.”

A BJP supporter carries a picture of then  Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after an election rally in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh on  April 29, 2004. (Photographer: Amit Bhargava/Bloomberg News)
A BJP supporter carries a picture of then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after an election rally in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh on April 29, 2004. (Photographer: Amit Bhargava/Bloomberg News)

There is also hard data to support this. After the 2009 Lok Sabha election, ADR analysed election expenditure affidavits of 6,753 candidates who contested the elections.

  • Only four candidates of the 6,753 said that they had exceeded the limit set for expenditure.
  • 30 said they had spent around 90-95 percent of the limit.
  • The remaining 6,719 (out of 6,753), about 99.5 percent of the candidates, said under oath that they had spent only 45 to 55 percent of the limit.

These figures need to be seen in the context of the constant clamour by candidates and political parties that the limit set for election expenditure is too low and needs to be increased. As a matter of fact, the limit has actually been raised from time to time, starting from mere Rs 25,000 in 1951 to Rs 70 lakh in February 2014.

Another related piece of information is a statement made by the late Gopinath Munde in a public meeting, a few months before the 2014 election.

Munde said he had spent Rs 8 crore on his election campaign for the 2009 Lok Sabha election. His election expenditure affidavit showed that he had spent Rs 19.37 lakh!

If this is the efficacy of the limits for expenditure by candidates, it should not be difficult to imagine what the limits for political parties might achieve. Making laws or amending laws is an enabling factor, the real key lies in implementation and enforcement.

Therefore if the intention is to reduce and limit the adverse impact of money on our democracy, the solution may not lie in specifying limits that are impossible to enforce but in transparency. Once things become transparent, enforcement gets into the public domain.

Supporters of a political party sit on the roof and in a bus after an election rally in Bankura, West Bengal. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)
Supporters of a political party sit on the roof and in a bus after an election rally in Bankura, West Bengal. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

It was to achieve transparency in political financing that after a protracted effort in the Central Information Commission, vehemently opposed by all political parties, a full bench of the CIC declared on Jun. 3, 2013 “that AICC/INC, BJP, CPI(M), CPI, NCP, and BSP are public authorities under section 2(h) of the RTI Act”.
It further directed “the Presidents, General/Secretaries of these Political Parties… to designate CPIOs and the Appellate Authorities at their headquarters in 6 weeks time,” and asked “the CPIOs so appointed [to] respond to the RTI applications extracted in this order in 4 weeks time.”

None of the six political parties complied with the decision of the CIC.

A complaint of non-compliance of its decision was filed with the CIC. The CIC issued several notices, including ‘show cause’ notices, to the six political parties but none of them even cared to respond to the notices. This was blatant defiance of the highest statutory authority in the country for administering the RTI Act.

After repeated failed attempts to get a response from any of the six parties, the CIC finally expressed its inability to get its own order implemented, on March 16, 2015, saying, “the Commission is bereft of the tools to get its orders complied with.”

However, the CIC decision of March 16, 2015, also contained the following assertions: “As per the Commission’s order, which is final and binding, the respondent national political parties are public authorities under the RTI Act.”

The parties “are not in compliance with the Commission’s order of 03.06.2013 and the RTI Act. The respondents, as public authorities, have not implemented the directions contained in the Commission’s order and there is no evidence of any intention to do so” (Emphasis added).

The matter is now pending in the Supreme Court where the Government of India has said in an affidavit that political parties should not be under the RTI Act.

The intense desire of all political parties to keep their finances under wraps naturally engenders suspicion. Recent actions of the government such as the introduction of electoral bonds and the attempted amendment of a law that has been dead for eight years merely to save the BJP and the Congress from prosecution for violating the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act make the suspicions stronger.

So, while the initiative of the ECI is definitely welcome, it is doubtful that it will achieve the desired result of eliminating or at least reducing the adverse impact of money on elections. Much more needs to be done.

Jagdeep S Chhokar is a founder-member of Association for Democratic Reforms, and former Professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.

The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.