Saturday, June 14, 2008

Money Power in Elections

The former Chief Election Commissioner, T.S.Krishna Murthy once succinctly summed up the crisis of Indian democracy in terms of two Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs): money power and muscle power. Media reports on these two have only contributed to strengthen the prevailing myths, rather than unravel them. Writing about money power of a candidate or a political party is not easy for a journalist. One needs facts, and corroboration to establish that a candidate or a party used money power to distort or attempt to distort the outcome of an election. Doubtless, it is an offence under the Indian Penal Code and a violation of the Model Code of Conduct for political parties and the candidates. Such cases need to be exposed, and the E.C. has a responsibility to prevent and punish such violations.

While law in this regard should take its own course, my interest here is in understanding whether money power was ever useful in distorting the outcome of an election. A study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 24 constituencies spread across 17 States and Union Territories during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections found that almost all 122 candidates monitored by it had exceeded the expenditure ceilings imposed by the law (currently it is Rs.14 lakhs in a Lok Sabha election). The study found that money mattered to gain an entry into the electoral fray, and to remain visibly in the race, but you can’t hope to buy the votes and win elections. In other words, it is not true that the more you spend, the more likely you are to succeed.

So, money power appears to be bad not because it results in distortion of an electoral outcome, but because it keeps off those with little money from securing party tickets, and contesting meaningfully. As money is required for campaign, the parties cannot be faulted for giving nominations to candidates, who can fund their as well as party’s campaign.

As the unrealistic expenditure ceilings imposed by the statute are meaningless, there is little merit in saying that candidates are guilty of flouting the ceiling. It also makes little sense to argue that the system is unfair to those candidates who have limited resources to secure a party ticket, contest and win an election.

The other aspect is to understand how a candidate or a party funds a campaign, that is, the sources of such funding; and how and why these sources fund, whether they expect a quid pro quo from the system. These are larger issues which no journalist had bothered to touch because of limitations of ensuring the confidentiality. The recent decision of the Central Information Commission appears to have brought about a change in this, by requiring political parties too to respond to applications for revealing the sources of their funding. An RTI applicant recently succeeded in getting such information, but it is yet to result in a serious follow-up.

This article in Frontline brings out instances of parties/candidates using money power in the recently concluded Karnataka assembly elections. It quotes the BSP leader, P.G.R.Sindhia as saying that hisparty spent a lot of money in 20 to 30 seats, whereas in almost 150 seats, the party had trouble even reaching the ECI-stipulated limit of Rs.12 lakh. Does it mean the party spent more than the limit in those 20-30 seats? If so, it can well be taken as an admission, and the ECI should take action against the party and the candidates, under the RPA, besides registering cases under the IPC.

The Frontline article refrains from being specific, but is still an important contribution to the study of elections. “Money apparently decided the fortunes of quite a few seats”, says the author. If both the major parties spend equal amount of money, as the CSDS study had shown, can it decide the fortune of one or the other party? In fact, as the CSDS study shows, the party which spends more may well lose the elections, due to other factors.

As the article shows, parties overspend (above the ECI’s ceiling) in order to woo the voters. Wooing voters cannot be a wrong objective as it is implicit in the expenditure ceiling. The only limitation appears to be that if the ceiling is crossed, then it becomes an offence under the law, even though the objective of wooing the voters continues to be the objective. The author quotes a newly elected legislator as admitting that the prospective candidate had to spend on liquor, saris, jewellery, electronic goods, cell phones, biryani and on bringing bogus voters and even buying scooters and motorcycles.

This box quotes a newly elected legislator explaining the modus operandi of distributing money, liquor, pamphlets and other inducements. The same story claims that many families in urban slums received around Rs.3,000 for four votes, and targeted voters were given coupons to exchange them for liquor and white goods, and that the candidates resorted to dropping of a bundle of cash through the window at night.

What is at stake here is the journalist’s right to maintain confidentiality of his sources with regard to these disclosures, which are serious admissions by themselves, and the E.C. and the police ought to investigate them. Is the journalist bound to reveal his sources and the facts to the E.C. and the police? Section 39 Cr.P.C. which requires every person, aware of the commission of any offence punishable under any of the specified sections of the IPC, to give such information to the Magistrate or the police officer, in the absence of any reasonable excuse, does not exempt a media person. But Section 39 does not include any of the electoral offences specified in IPC, under Section 171, which would have been attracted in this case.

But Section 202 IPC specifies that whoever, knowing or having reason to believe that an offence has been committed, intentionally omits to give any information respecting that offence which he is legally bound to give, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both. The journalist can claim that the Section 202 IPC only seeks to punish those who refuse to give “any” information relating to the offence, whereas the published story gives many clues to an investigating officer to further investigate, and even approach the journalist concerned seeking further specific information relating to the offence. The journalist is not bound to reveal his sources and the specific information in his story, but will be certainly bound to share the information with the police and the investigating agencies, if sought for.

1 comment:

Dilip said...

How did the CSDS calculate how much is being spent by each candidate? There is money the candidate, his party and his supporters spend; the last is sometimes independent of the candidate. There is also the question of what the ground situation is before a particular candidate begins his/her campaign, i.e., whether the general mood of the electorate supported him/her or his/her party or not. Besides, candidates usually target particular areas for material incentives – for example, a middle-class neighborhood filled with professionals is unlikely to be offered all the booze, saris and cricket sets. Does the study indicate that spending money does not alter this existing reality at all or more precisely, in a tight race, does money not help to swing the few additional votes necessary to make the difference? Even visibility is perhaps relative and cannot be dissociated from the spending question. If two candidates are spending crores, the third, even if exceeding the limit but still lagging behind in overall spending may simply not have the kind of visibility necessary to make an impact.

I doubt prosecuting P.G.R.Sindhia will achieve anything. At the most, others may become more cautious in speaking truth to the media in such matters. More broadly, do spending limits help at all? As JP Stevens said a while ago (I think), money, like water, will always find a way to flow. Is allowing unlimited spending with a push towards transparency a better idea than trying to control amounts?

Also, if the EC bans all hoardings, posters, loudspeakers, etc. how can candidates get any kind of exposure/visibility at all unless they are veteran politicians/movie stars/assorted celebrities whom the public has already come to know something about? Many a time, one knows little about the candidate’s biography; all that one is aware of is his/her affiliation to a particular party. If candidates are denied the means to get their message across, how can they successfully influence those sections of the voting public who are not enamored of money /other forms of bribe? Is this not perversely incentivizing candidates to spend heavily on those sections of the populace who, in their view, may be bought over through such means?