‘Candidates invent new ways of malpractice’

Buck stopper Election Commissioner SY Quraishi in his office
Buck stopper Election Commissioner SY Quraishi in his office Photo: Shailendra Pandey

You said recently that the EC has not been able to contain money spent in the election. Why is this difficult? 
It is true that EC has not been able to contain black money in the election.  It is very difficult because a large amount of black money is spent.  Since the transaction happens between the giver and a receiver largely on the sly, it is very difficult for us to track it.  However when we get specific complaints either from the rival candidates or from the public or from the observers or through the media, we take prompt action and conduct raids to seize money.
We, however, keep track of the visible forms of expenditure to ensure that candidate remains within a legally prescribed limit of 25 lakhs per candidate for the Lok Sabha election and 10 lakhs in Vidhan Sabha election.  This includes hiring of vehicles, public address systems, distributing election paraphernalia, buying TV and print ads etc.  Candidates are directed to file returns thrice during the election process and a final account after the election.

‘We don’t have a magic wand. We cannot wipe out black money in three weeks’

Has the control on expenditure changed anything?
Restriction on the visible forms of electioneering mentioned above has led to less ostentation and noise which has been largely appreciated by the people.  Election is no longer considered nuisance since no advertisement on public or private property is allowed through wall painting and posters.  However, restrictions on the number of flags, banners and leaflets have been largely removed recently, since they do not cause permanent damage to environment.  We are sometimes accused of killing the “festivity” of democracy but our feedback is that the public is very happy with the noise-free and cleaner electioneering through out expenditure control measures.

What is the use of a 25 lakh limit if much more is spent in black?
There are still a number of candidates who are law abiding and who do not want to cross the prescribed limit.  Many candidates have been approaching us appreciating our measures and thanking the EC for making it possible for candidates with lesser means to be able to contest in an environment of level-playing field.  It is the black money that continues to be a problem.  We don’t have a magic wand.  To expect that black money power is wiped out completely in three-four weeks when the EC in action is impractical.  The ceiling of 25 lakhs was fixed in 2003 and there’s a feeling that it is not realistic which forces the candidate to violate it.  We have suggested to government that EC should have the power to itself raise or correct the limit before every election, instead of waiting for the rules to be amended each time. 

‘We have received calls saying children are being used to transport liquor in school bags’

How much of an increase has there been in money spent in 2004 election and now? 
There’s been an exponential jump. There’s more money available in the market compared to 5 years ago and so are the avenues to spend.

Which states witness the most rampant payment of cash for votes? 
It’s obviously high in the more prosperous states. Karnataka is one example, particularly in the mining belt. Candidates in Goa and Andhra Pradesh are also reported to use a lot of money.

What about material gifts?
It is true that besides cash, inducements in kind are resorted to.  Liquor is the biggest problem. Three months before polling, we ask the district administration including the Excise officials to start tracking production, stocking and distribution of alcohol. In Punjab, a month before election, liquor stocks shot up from 2 lakh litres to 19 lakh litres. In Karnataka, we found water tankers and milk tankers which had secret chambers where liquor was stored! We’ve also received complaints that sometimes school children are used to transport liquor bottles in their school bags.

How successful have you been in tracking bribes in kind?
Candidates are always inventing new ways of political malpractice. During Karnataka’s last election, it was cricket season and we found truckloads of cricket gear that were being distributed! In Goa they gave away vouchers which would be encashable for motorcycles if the candidate won the election. This way, the voter with a voucher has a vested interest in making the candidate win. We detected this when we found an extraordinary booking and sale of motorcycles in the area.

 Are you happy that companies are declaring the donations they make to political parties?
There’s an incentive for declaring the donation, which is why they do it. Donations are tax free for both the political party and the company. But there’s no legal compulsion to file returns. If they don’t care about the tax benefit, and don’t declare, the EC has no power to penalize them. Of the seven national parties, two have not been filing returns.

Why has the EC been overdoing the monitoring of hate speeches, while not putting as much effort into checking money movement?
This is a totally baseless allegation. We’re not focusing on one, and neglecting the other. Hate speeches are made in public, and on the media, to provoke communities while the money is exchanged quietly in the middle of the night. The nature of the two offences is very different. We are doing stringent enforcement in both cases.

How much of it is a manpower problem? 
We had started an institution of Expenditure Observers in 1995, in addition to General Observers. They were drawn from Income Tax, and Customs and Central Excise departments. Certainly the staff available is inadequate to check the problem fully. We are now considering the possibility of an expenditure monitoring cell within the EC, to monitor the follow up action after the election. Currently, after the candidates declare their assets through an affidavit and file their Income Tax returns, we simply pass them on to the Income Tax department besides putting them up on the notice board or on the web.

People say that EC catches only petty corruption while the big fish goes scot-free?
The law of corruption does not distinguish between a bribe of Rs 5 and a bribe of Rs 5 million.  We come down on both when we notice either. In the last election in Karnataka, we seized goodies and money worth Rs.44 crores.

Jaswant Singh was found distributing money in his constituency. He was let off because he said it was a “tradition” to distribute money in a social function. 
He was not let off. EC reprimanded him.

So candidates only have to say sorry, and they’re free. 
To trivialise their apology is a big mistake. For a senior leader to retract some comment, or apologise for distributing cash is a very serious embarrassment. They don’t want to land up in these situations and be reprimanded, because it leads to a loss of image. And image is important in politics.

But isn’t a notice too soft a penalty? What about stringent legal action?
Since bribing voters is a criminal offence, we also register an FIR. For instance, recently a candidate from Bihar was found with Rs.10 lakhs, so we lodged an FIR against him. Apart from legal action, we also act under the Model Code of Conduct.  The Model Code of Conduct is a unique instrument that has been found to be even more effective than the laws. It has a great moral force. If EC gives a notice to any senior leader, the explanation comes the very next day. If they use helicopters or government vehicles we ask them to deposit the money within 48 hours. And they abide, since the Model Code of Conduct is a creation of the political parties themselves through a consensus.  Some people tend to trivialize the Model Code of Conduct saying that EC is a just a notice-issuing organisation, but in our assessment, it is the most effective mechanism.


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