After a laudable move to rescind the RK Nagar by-poll in Tamil Nadu, where contesting candidates were blatantly offering inducements to electors in “innovative” forms such as prepaid phone recharge coupons, newspaper subscriptions, milk tokens, money transfers into Jan Dhan accounts and even mobile wallet payments, the Election Commission is now pushing for the power to disqualify candidates who offer bribes to voters. The EC wants candidates promoting corruption to be treated on a par with those charged with heinous crimes and be barred from contesting polls for a fixed period of time. If the proposal goes through, a candidate can be disqualified for up to five years. These are stringent provisions, and may be more effective as a deterrent than Rule 90 of the Conduct of Election Rules 1961, which prescribes the upper limit of the total election expenditure that a candidate can incur; a rule which is mostly observed in the breach. Though the EC’s push for setting higher standards is creditable, such moves may at best help in fixing greater accountability for individual candidates. However, the area that needs urgent focus is the conduct of political parties. There is a cap on expenditure by individual candidates — up to ₹28 lakh in assembly elections and ₹70 lakh in parliamentary polls — but there is no cap on party expenditure, which defeats the purpose of fixing individual caps.

Studies by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) reveal that as much as 69 per cent of the known funding for political parties, that is, about ₹7,833 crore which in itself is a fraction of the real funds available to the bigger players, comes from “unknown sources”. The income from “known” donors was barely 16 per cent while income from other known sources such as sale of assets, membership fees, bank interest et al was just about 15 per cent of total income. Section 29C of the Representation of the People Act (RPA) 1951 says that political parties are required to submit details to the EC of only those donations received from a person or company that are in excess of ₹20,000. The Finance Act passed by Parliament does not reduce the limit for anonymous contributions. Only cash donations from one source have been limited to ₹2,000 per year. There is still no limit on anonymous donations in other forms, including the newly introduced electoral bonds.

While the Budget has made a beginning in making poll funding somewhat more transparent, compliance by major parties, none of which has submitted its Income Tax returns on time in the last five financial years, leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, India’s election regulator deserves to be commended for remaining the single most determined player in the struggle to keep integrity alive at the core of our democratic process.