India File

Synchronised polls are a smokescreen

Poornima Joshi | Updated on July 01, 2019 Published on July 01, 2019

The elephant in the room as far as poll reform is concerned, namely funding of elections, is conveniently obscured

Are simultaneous elections the panacea for all electoral ills, as it is being made out to be?

The Government, on its part, is armed with the latest in the series of reports that began with the Law Commission’s 170th report in 1999, the report of a parliamentary standing committee on Law and Justice and a NITI Aayog discussion paper by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai. These make a strong case for simultaneous elections on the grounds that frequent elections hold up governance and incur “massive expenditure” by Government and other stakeholders.

The argument for “massive expenditure by Government” has been countered by some political parties. The Election Commission estimates that the cost of holding one Lok Sabha and all State Legislative Assembly elections is ₹4,500 crore whereas holding simultaneous elections will straight away incur an expenditure of ₹9,284 crore in buying EVMs and voter-verified paper audit trails (VVPATs). Besides additional storing and warehousing facilities cost, the more critical aspect is the expenditure by “other stakeholders”.

The tip of the iceberg — so far as “other stakeholders” and their expenses during elections are concerned — is highlighted by the Election Commission which declared at the end of the Lok Sabha elections on May 24 that it had made seizures worth ₹3,475.76 crore during the polls. Of this, cash seizure amounted to ₹844 crore, seizure of drugs, narcotics and alcohol amounted to ₹1,583 crore and seizures of gold and other precious metals amounted altogether to about ₹1,047 crore.

The crux of the matter

A very illuminating insight into political corruption and influence of “other stakeholders” on the process of elections is offered in a not much heard of debate initiated in the Rajya Sabha by Bhupendra Yadav, presently General Secretary in the BJP, way back on November 30, 2012. The debate illustrates why the whole question on whether to have simultaneous elections is superfluous because it is proper checks on political funding and election expenditure that constitute the very heart of democracy, electoral reforms and ensuring free and fair elections.

The BJP MP initiated the debate —State Funding of Elections and Related Laws — on a private member’s resolution in the House, saying “What is of utmost importance to democracy is ensuring that corporate funding of elections be made absolutely transparent.” He cited the Indrajit Gupta Committee report of 1998 that recommended State funding of elections to establish a level playing field for parties with less money.

Gyan Prakash Pilania, another BJP legislator, defined “political funding and election expenditure” as the “crux of electoral reforms”.“To ensure probity and transparency in elections, the crux revolves around political funding,” said Pilania.

Pilania went on to cite figures in the House pertaining to funds received by different political parties and said, “This money has links with the functioning of the political parties. Does giving money to the parties give them hooks over these parties?

There is also a possibility of black money being channelled into politics. And the most important question here is — does all of this mean that there is an equal playing field? How does one ensure that a poor man can enter the system in a direct election? Until we ensure transparent funding in elections, until there are real limits on election expenditure, there is no fairness. At present expenditure limits are not followed and expenditure returns that are filed are literally bogus.”

Pilania told Rajya Sabha that the “real crux of electoral reforms is real transparency in funding of political parties and expenditure”. What both the BJP MPs and some other speakers in this debate focused on was “transparency in funding” and how State funding is important in ensuring free and fair elections.

Besides the Indrajit Gupta Committee report, there have been several other reports, from the Law Commission report on Reforms of the Electoral Laws in 1999, report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution in 2001 and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission in 2008, all of which have recommended State funding as one of the more effective ways of electoral reforms.

Significantly, the same seminal report of the Law Commission headed by Justice BP Jeevan Reddy on Reform of the Electoral Laws in 1999, which is the origin of the coinage, ‘one nation, one poll’, is, for the large part, focused on political corruption, criminalisation, ensuring internal democracy in political parties, etc. This is also the same report that introduced the idea of simultaneous introduction of a confidence vote with a no-confidence motion i.e. fresh Rule 198A be introduced by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha in the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the House that no leave should be granted to a motion expressing no confidence in the Council of Ministers unless it is accompanied by a motion expressing confidence in a named individual.

What is important to note is that the Government has focused on just one chapter in Part VII of the report pertaining to simultaneous polls, and has chosen to ignore all the three chapters in Part IV relating to “Control of Election Expenses” where the Law Commission proceeded to recommend partial State funding as the first step towards total state funding of elections and bar the political parties from receiving funds from other sources, admittedly an area that the ruling party MPs themselves identify as the “crux” of electoral reforms to ensure free and fair elections in India.

The “selective” electoral reforms and drumming it up as the panacea for all evil that plagues the electoral system in India is, according to former CPI(M) General Secretary Prakash Karat, clever and predictable, since the BJP, which is the richest party in India and has benefited greatly from its own introduction of electoral bonds, would rather divert and distract than focus on the real issue at hand.

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), India’s seven largest political parties declared a combined income of ₹1,397.90 crore in 2017-18. Of this, the BJP alone received a massive 73.5 per cent i.e. ₹1027 crore. The introduction of electoral bonds, another step hailed as a big reform when it was introduced as a part of the Finance Bill in 2017, has only helped to channelise more resources in the direction of the ruling party. In 2017-18, the total value of electoral bonds purchased was ₹215 crore of which ₹210 crore i.e. 98 per cent, went to the BJP.

‘Four steps for reform’

“There are four steps urgently needed for electoral reform — the first is to ensure State funding not so much in cash but in kind to facilitate free air time on audio-visual media, transportation, etc. The second is to fix a ceiling not just on expense of the individual candidates but the political parties as a whole. It is ridiculous that you contain the candidate at some ₹50-60 lakh while the parties are free to spend thousands of crores of unaccounted money. In France, there is a Commission that monitors the expenses of the political parties and penalises them if they cross a limit,” said Karat.

He pointed out that through the electoral bonds, the funding of elections has become even more opaque and tilted in favour of the ruling party because while the donor and the recipient remain anonymous to the people, the Government knows who is funding whom, which becomes an influencing factor in the donors making most of their donations in favour of the ruling party.

Published on July 01, 2019
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