Elections to the state Assembly will see intense campaigning by candidates, who will use every possible trick to beat their rivals. The practice of distributing freebies by candidates in exchange for votes has been old in Goa. So is the practice of cash bribes and other unethical means. The Election Commission of India has this time come out with the most stringent measures against practices of bribery as well as use of religion and caste. Even the Supreme Court has given a verdict against use of religion, caste, creed and language for electoral purposes. Demonetization of high value currency notes was generally presumed to have reduced the chances of politicians stacking money for bribing voters, but this presumption might prove wrong, because the currency situation has eased. Let the Election Commission remember that in Goa the average size of electorate in constituencies is much smaller, compared to larger states. Hence a candidate in Goa, if he is bent upon bribing voters, will succeed in doing so, as he requires much lesser money than his counterpart in say, UP. So, even with the ceiling on withdrawal of cash from bank account, or with the connivance of bank officials in cases not detected, he would have gathered enough to bribe voters. The election authorities have to keep an eye not only on the giver but also the receivers. So far the provision in the law is for action only against those who try to influence the voters using illegal means, with receivers going free. If a check is kept on the voters and the election authorities succeed in catching voters accepting bribe, it should serve as deterrent and could perhaps go a long way in preventing use of illegal inducements and cleansing the electoral process of unethical practices.
In this election, while coming out with stricter rules, the ECI has also launched a large number of IT applications to facilitate candidates and voters. It remains to be seen how well the participants in the electoral process use them and whether it helps in making election fairer. The ECI has raised the expenditure limits for polls expenses for individual candidates to Rs 28 lakh in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand and to Rs 20 lakh for Goa and Manipur. There had been hardly any case of candidates declaring before the election authorities that their expenses were beyond the permissible limits. So far there have been no cases of anyone found contravening the law, except for a few complaints which the ECI would be examining. Many candidates spend much above the permissible limits, and it remains to be seen how many fabricated account books are discovered by the election authorities this time.
To make the electoral process free and fair the government of the day should strengthen the ECI hand by making changes in the electoral laws by issue of ordinance, especially with regards to reducing limit of anonymous donations to Rs 2,000. Besides, as all the opposition parties feel that the presentation of Union budget might be an influencing factor in favour of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the central government could defer it to a later date, as was done in 2012. Such a step would go a long way in ensuring that polls were not influenced by any project or welfare announcements and the BJP could take the credit of showing that it is actually a party with a difference that wants to close down the unethical ways that were trod by political parties, thus helping build a clean political environment.
The ECI has to be lauded for enforcing a number of measures to root out malpractices, including misuse of government machinery. But it has not been receiving the support it needs to root out corrupt practices from the political parties. On many issues, political parties across the spectrum hold the same stance, holding up reforms that would instill greater faith of the common people in the political class. The bureaucracy could play an important role in establishing a transparent system and acting without bias against those indulging in wrong practices. However, to expect all in the bureaucracy to be neutral is too far-fetched an idea, as many have political connections and received favours from political masters for their postings or promotions. In the demonetization debate, the voice of the common people cried out for transparency in the credits and debits to the accounts of the political parties. However, the political parties, including the BJP, decided to skirt the question. When will the politicians realize that a transparent account of political parties would help them regain respect in the eyes of the common people, who perceive them as ‘chor’?