Deccan Herald

The problem with political jokes is that they get elected, or so goes an age-old adage. But worse is that they do so at your cost.

The irony of election economics is not lost. Colossal sums are spent on holding elections, and the popular mandate is subverted through the backdoor by 'cheating' political parties. Watch Maharashtra-wards.

According to the Centre for Media Studies(CMS), a not-for-profit research think-tank, Rs 55,000 to 60,000 crore was spent in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The report, Poll Expenditure: The 2019 Elections, terms it as the most expensive ever anywhere, with an estimated Rs 100 crore spent in each constituency which comes to about Rs 700 per vote. The BJP spent about 45 per cent of the total amount as against just 20 per cent it had done in 1998. The Congress, which had spent 40 per cent of the total expenditure in 2009 when it was in power, spent between 15-20 per cent in 2019. The total spend in 1998 was Rs 9000 crore. The expenditure permitted by the Election Commission per constituency per candidate in larger states is Rs 70 lakhs.

An analysis of the audit reports submitted by political parties to the Election Commission of India reveals that 18 political parties, including seven national ones, spent Rs 6500 crore on elections between 2015 and 2020 and 52.3 per cent or Rs 3400 crore of this amount was spent on publicity alone. The BJP spent 56 per cent (over Rs 3600 crore) of the total election outlay of the 18 parties and the Congress 21.41 per cent (over Rs 1400 crore), the two together accounting for 77 per cent of the total five-year poll spend. Of this amount, the BJP's spending on advertisement and publicity was Rs 2000 crore and the Congress Rs 560 crore.

However, the CMS study puts the total expenditure by all political parties and their candidates in the 2018 state Assembly elections to the five states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram at Rs 14,000 crore alone. "As the poll expenditure rises, so will the corruption in governance as well," its chairman N Bhaskara Rao is quoted saying. And therein lies the rub, for the law is skewed in favour of the party in power at the Centre. This is quite simply because it has more central agencies at its command to weaponise and subjugate the "target" to its will and against opposition parties.

Take the case of electoral bonds introduced by the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in 2017, ostensibly to bring about transparency in electoral funding. According to the annual audit report of the BJP submitted to the Election Commission of India(ECI), the party got Rs 210 crore in electoral bonds in 2017-18, which, as per the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) report released on February 9, 2021, constituted nearly 95 per cent of all the electoral bonds purchased in the period in question.

For the financial year 2018-19, the BJP received Rs 1,450.89 crore and the Indian National Congress (INC) Rs 383.26 crore worth. Thus for the two periods taken together, political parties received Rs 2760.20 crore from electoral bonds, of which "a whopping 60.17 per cent, or Rs 1660.89 crore, was received by a single party which is the ruling political party, the report said.

It added that over 52 per cent of the total income of the national parties and 53.83 per cent of the total income of regional parties analysed by ADR for 2018-19 came from donations received through electoral bonds. The ECI data for 2019-20 continues on the same lines, with the BJP getting over 75 per cent of the total electoral bonds sold and the Congress about 9 per cent of the total amount of Rs 3,435 crores. According to a written reply in Parliament by the Union minister of state for finance, Pankaj Chaudhary, bonds worth Rs 9208.23 crore have been sold since 2018 when they became effectively available, of which Rs 9187.55 crore worth have been encashed by political parties.

The then Union finance minister Arun Jaitley is on record articulating that one of the aims of the 2016 demonetisation was to curb the use of black money in poll funding. "The invisible political funding process needs cleaning," he added. But if figures of the 2019 parliamentary polls are any indicator, the reverse seems to have happened, with the amount almost doubling (CMS findings). According to the study, there were over 70 seats where the poll expenditure crossed Rs 40 crore.

While the Modi government came to power promising greater transparency in election funding, the fact is that it is more opaque now than ever before. Subsequent disclosures brought out that both the Election Commission and the Reserve Bank of India had voiced their reservations about the electoral bonds scheme, but the objections were overruled, and the scheme was passed in the Lok Sabha as part of the Finance Bill, thus doing away with the need to get it passed by the Rajya Sabha. The Opposition parties have been vocal on the issue, terming it as a back channel to black money induction in elections. However, most have been beneficiaries of the scheme, even if to a lesser extent. Former Union minister P Chidambaram had termed electoral bonds the "biggest scam of the decade" and pointed out that the donor who did not donate to the BJP will be known to the party, and if anyone would be completely in the dark, it would be the people of India.

A HuffPost expose on electoral bonds, carried out in 2020 and based on RTI sourced document, brought out the irregularities on how this controversial source of political financing was given effect. Interestingly, nearly three years after an appeal was filed with the Central Information Commission(CIC), the highest authority to adjudicate RTI matters, last December came its dismissal. The appeal had sought disclosure of reports submitted by the State bank of India (SBI) regarding the sale and encashment of electoral bonds in 2018, which were withheld by the SBI on the ground of personal information held in a fiduciary capacity. Noted Suresh Chandra, Information Commissioner, there appears to be "no public interest" in further prolonging the matter as there is no substance in the appeal calling for intervention by the Commission.

Eminent citizens had in December last year written to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, N V Ramana, seeking early listing of some important cases, including the one relating to electoral bonds, which remains pending for four years though numerous elections have taken place in the interregnum.

The ADR had filed a PIL in 2017 on the alleged issue of corruption and subversion of democracy through illicit and foreign funding of political parties and an interim application before the West Bengal and Assam applications for a stay on the sale of electoral bonds, but the same was denied by a bench headed by the then chief justice of the apex court S A Bobde.

Meanwhile, a request for an urgent hearing on the matter before a Supreme court bench headed by Chief Justice N V Ramana by advocate Prashant Bhushan in April this year has elicited an acknowledging response that the issue was critical and needed an urgent hearing leading to hopes of early resolution.

Justice delayed is justice denied, and every poll has a 'price'.

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