Gulam Jeelani
New Delhi

Most of the cash confiscated ahead of the 2014 general elections was returned and less than 1% of offences could be proved.

Law enforcement agencies have seized cash, liquor, and freebies worth Rs 1,760 crore in the run-up to assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Telangana, the Election Commission said in a statement in November 20.

Telangana, which goes to the polls on November 30, reported the highest seizures worth Rs 659.2 crore, followed by Rajasthan at Rs 650.7 Crore. Elections to elect the 200-member Rajasthan assembly are scheduled on November 25. The amount is seven times the contraband worth Rs 239.15 crore seized ahead of elections to these five states in 2018, the election watchdog said.

Cash stash

Every election season the poll body seizes hordes of ‘illegal’ cash, and other valuables as part of its “commitment to ensuring free, fair and inducement-free elections.”

But what happens to the cash after it is seized by the flying squads and surveillance teams ahead of polling?

“There is a standard operating procedure laid down for the seizure of money and the follow ups. The Election Commission’s role ends after the money is seized. It is the Income Tax department that comes into picture after the seizure. But in cases where a large amount of money is found, it is not possible to establish on the spot whether it is linked to the polls or not. The law enforcement agencies seize the money only if the person who possesses it cannot explain the source,” said a retired district administration official in Uttar Pradesh who did not want to be named.

What the law says

Section 171 B and 171 C of the Indian Penal Code and Section 123 of Representation of People Act makes use of money, muscle or any other form of influence in the process of elections illegal in India. The poll body deploys expenditure observers with teams of flying squads, static surveillance teams and video surveillance. Special expenditure observers, usually retired bureaucrats, also appointed for the purpose.

Usually, cash exceeding Rs 50,000 caught in a vehicle carrying a candidate, his agent or party worker or carrying posters, election material or any drugs, liquor, arms or gift items, valued at more than Rs 10,000 that is likely to be used for inducement of electors, is seized. “In case of suspicion, the in-charge police officer shall seize the items of bribe and issue a proper Panchnama for seizure as per provisions of CrPc,” reads the Election Commission’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) issued in May 2015.

Seized cash less than Rs 10 Lakh is deposited in the district treasury office, giving a week for the claimants, if any, to make an appeal. For cash more than ₹ 10 lakh, the nodal officer of the Income Tax department has to be informed. The claimants should produce proof that the money is accounted for and was not intended for inducing voters.

“The information on the status of the criminal cases lodged in matters of seizure of unaccounted cash, liquor, drugs etc during elections is not available in the public domain. While there is robust reporting of figures of seizures by the Commission, we could not find enough information on whether criminal proceedings against persons accused of bribing voters were brought to their logical conclusion,” says Shelly Mahajan, senior programme associate at the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), the election watchdog. ADR has been trying to gather information on the status of seized valuables through RTI applications. But the fate of seized money remains an enigma.

Back to square one

In May 2019, the Centre told the Supreme Court, in an affidavit, that most of the cash (Rs 303.86) crore seized ahead of 2014 general election, was refunded. The money was released after an assessment of the source. The government also told the court that only three accused out of hundreds of cases, or less than one per cent, were convicted.

The Centre told the court that the cases are hardly prosecuted since the officers, deputed on election duty, get back to their routine work once polls are over, with little chance of a follow up.

“All search and seizure operations carried out during elections are as per the provisions of the Income Tax Act. The department does not differentiate between election related and non-election related operations. Therefore, apart from the data provided by Election Commission of India, no separate data was centrally maintained in the CBDT regarding search and seizure operations conducted and cash seizures made during elections. No separate prosecution data for a particular class of assesses was centrally maintained in the CBDT,” the government said.

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