The Supreme Court’s judgment allowing the Election Commission to vet expense accounts of candidates will, at best, foster some honesty

By allowing the Election Commission (EC) to disqualify elected representatives who declare false accounts of election expenditure, the Supreme Court has rectified another toothless provision in the Representation of the People (RP) Act, 1951. The literal wording of Section 10A of the RP Act merely allows the EC to disqualify those candidates who do not submit accounts of election expenses. Section 10A came into question when the EC concluded that former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda and former UP MLA Umlesh Yadav had underreported their election expenses. Now that the apex court has taken a broader view of Section 10 A and cleared the EC’s action against Yadav, disqualified in October 2011, the fates of Chavan and Koda have also been virtually sealed. All three were accused of indulging in paid news, a practice that first came into scrutiny in 2009 after media houses were suspected of passing off advertisements as news.

Chavan, in his 2009 assembly election campaign, declared less than Rs13,000 on two election rallies addressed by actor Salman Khan and a paltry Rs5,379 for six newspaper ads. What betrayed his parsimony were the several pages of “ads” placed in various newspapers, but few were mandatory branded “Advertisement” forcing his opponent Madhav Kinhalkar to approach the EC. The poll expenditures of most politicians would have a similar tale to tell. The Association for Democratic Reforms found that MPs spent an average of Rs14.62 lakh (59 per cent of the average election limit) in 2009. Despite there being no spending limits for political parties, 73 per cent declared that their campaigns were not funded by their parties. But such parsimony, all around, has not had a dampening effect on election spending limits. Recently, the EC increased the constituency-wise spending limit to Rs54-70 lakh for Lok Sabha elections from the Rs22-40 lakh in 2009.

These findings clearly point to black money funding Indian elections and the pointlessness of spending limits. The ADR study also belies the frequent lament of politicians that the EC’s spending limits, being too low, forces them to adopt other means. The RP Act mandates that candidates maintain a separate account for elections and submit details of all transactions and payments from this account to the EC. But underreporting has been the norm. With the EC cleared to vet election expenditures, candidates’ account books may now reflect a more honest disclosure of some expenses. But does the EC have the institutional will, manpower, and the capability to monitor unaccounted cash flows that will never find its way to such accounts? It is a battle that the EC cannot fight alone. Other arms of the State like the Income Tax department and the Enforcement Directorate have a job to do too.

Left to themselves, Parliament has shown little willingness to fortify laws like the RP Act that impacts the political class. The aborted attempt to amend the RP Act and negate the Supreme Court’s intervention, striking down Section 4(2) allowing convicted legislators to evade the disqualification provision, is only too recent. A spending limit for political parties has been broached but has found little traction among politicians. In the paid news case, the government predictably upheld the literal definition of Section 10A, an interpretation that would have favoured the three erring politicians. Enacted in 1951 long before black money and money power mattered in elections, such attempts to hide behind archaic laws stand in the way of meaningful electoral reforms.

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