The process for Lok Sabha elections and Assembly by-polls has been set in motion. Political parties and candidates are going to make all-out efforts to win whichever constituencies they are fighting for. As is known unofficially, huge amounts of money will be spent on the campaign to woo voters. As of now, the Election Commission of India had put the caps on a candidate’s expenditure at Rs 50-70 lakh for parliamentary constituencies and Rs 20-28 lakh for Assembly constituencies. The expenditure limits have been hiked with every election; this time too, the ECI is likely to raise them. Reality checks on expenses of candidates by non-government organisations like the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and others have revealed none of the candidates in the country has been found to have spent amount beyond permissible limits. It is common knowledge that huge amounts of money are spent during elections to not only hire workers but also to buy votes by influencing people with freebies. It can easily be seen from an overview of the accounts filed by candidates contesting elections that there is no truthfulness in reporting election expenses by the candidates.
Knowing that the officials appointed by the ECI to oversee election expenses have their own limitations, the candidates and their election agents manipulate accounts to show that their expenditure is within limits. There have been cases of election observers being sent on wild goose hunt, of course, by some party workers informing them that their opponents were distributing money or goods to influence voters with cash or in kind. But ordinary voters know it really happens; they know who has given them what, but they do not speak about it. Often the money or gifts come to them in innovatively indirect ways, so no one can accuse the candidate of having paid for them. Sometimes, candidates send proxies to distribute goodies to voters; sometimes they get stores to give them. The candidates have to keep campaign workers and canvassers happy; so they give them daily wages and pay for their lunch and dinner and drinks and petrol. There may be additional perquisites. The number of workers is kept secret and only a few are accounted for, which helps candidates manipulate their elections expenses accounts to keep their spending on record within limits.
It is surprising to note that though many candidates spend more than permissible limits, none of them is caught. The ones that are brought to book are often stray, independent candidates who enter the fray for their own motives and fail to keep accounts and are banned subsequently from contesting elections for not furnishing the accounts. It is humanly impossible for election officials to keep the trail of all election expenses by candidates. If candidates have to be nailed down on overspending, there has to be a large separate apparatus that should assess the expenses on everything the candidates spend on: from the stage for speeches, to the number of vehicles they use, to hiring of campaign workers, to advertisements of various kinds, to distribution of cash, liquor and goodies. As constituencies are spread over large areas, and vigilance has to be kept day and night, the number of officials is found to be too inadequate to deal with the overspending by candidates. Never have voters anywhere come forward to tell the ECI officials that they have received cash, liquor or goodies from a candidate to buy their votes. The election observers deputed to track illicit ways of influencing vote do not strain themselves.
Despite the fact that the ECI has identified unchecked money power to influence voters as a major malpractice in the country’s electoral democracy, it has not been able to eliminate it, as the political parties and candidates use a variety of ways to avoid detection. The push for capping party and campaign expenditure to ensure a level playing field for all parties and candidates has been resisted by some political parties on the premise that political campaigns led by parties were agenda-based and if they were limited, it could lead to encouragement of politics based on caste and individual influence. It is sad to note that the ECI has been increasing upper limits on expenditure at every election with a hope that this would induce more truthfulness in reporting poll expenses but has failed to derive the expected results. The ECI and the government of India need to work out a sound strategy to combat overspending in order to make elections truly free and fair.