The principal opposition party in India, the Congress, has been hobbled in this election by its inability to access money. In all the 11 bank branches where the Congress has its party accounts, the money cannot be withdrawn. The party claims it is being hemmed in despite having paid ₹115 crore to the Income Tax department for a penalty on late returns filing in Assessment Year 2018-19.

Rahul Gandhi declared on Thursday: “All our accounts are frozen, we can do no campaign work.” Elaborating further, Sonia Gandhi said: “A systematic effort is underway by the Prime Minister to cripple the Indian National Congress financially. Funds collected from the public are being frozen, and money from our accounts is being taken away forcibly. However, even under these most challenging circumstances, we are doing our best to maintain the effectiveness of our election campaign,” she said.

A day before the Gandhis came out, the treasurer of the Congress, Ajay Maken, was struggling with the party accountant trying to take out money from the bank. “Listen to this,” he put the phone on the speaker while the harassed accountant asked multiple questions. “Keep sitting there,” Maken told him, “we should be able to withdraw today.”

The Congress has 11 accounts in different branches of Bank of Baroda, Canara Bank, Punjab National Bank and the State Bank of India in Delhi. From none of the branches, the party has been able to withdraw money since the election campaign started.

“We have paid up. ₹115 crore has been withdrawn from our account. But they are not letting us touch our own money even now,” Maken said.

Late filing of returns

The story is related to the late filing of the return by the Congress for Assessment Year 2018-19. Based on the assessment, a demand of ₹103 crore was raised. Delays in payment resulted in interest, too. On February 16, the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal granted a lien or protection of ₹115 crore to the IT Department, which had told the tribunal that the attachment of ₹115 crore from various accounts was part of the routine recovery process. Congress could not win its appeal before the Delhi High Court and moved to the Supreme Court. “Eventually we will get relief from the courts. These are just tactics to cripple us during the elections,” Maken told businessline.

While it is still running around in circles to tackle this particular case, last week, Congress received a fresh notice from the IT Department for FY 1993-94 when Sita Ram Kesari was the Treasurer. “We are being asked to calculate penal charges for FY 1993-94, 31 years after the assessment! What would you call it if not tax terrorism,” asked Maken.

The real problem will start after the nominations are filed next week. Immediately after the nominations are filed, candidates open their new bank accounts, which the Congress uses to deposit money for election expenses.

“Like families save money for their daughter’s wedding, parties save up for elections. We are being curtailed before the biggest festival of democracy,” said Maken.

The Congress obviously has no money to spend on the three major expenses during elections — publicity and advertising, transportation, and public meetings. “It’s like playing a fixed match. There is no level playing field here,” said Maken.