At Stake In Chhattisgarhhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/at-stake-in-chhattisgarh/

At Stake In Chhattisgarh

Antagarh expose is an opportunity to stem the rot, bring long-pending electoral reform.

Raman Singh, PDS rice scam, PDS scam, Chhattisgarh PDS rice scam, Congress, Raman Singh government, Chhattisgarh news, india news, nation news, Chhattisgarh
Chief Minister Raman Singh

The Indian Express story about the dirty role money apparently played in a Chhattisgarh by-election in 2014 (‘We have to go up to seven at least… he is expecting 10. We will bring him down…’, December 30) makes for depressing reading. The Congress candidate suddenly withdrew his nomination just before the last day for withdrawal. Soon thereafter, he was expelled from the party — but the story does not seem to end there.

The event is despicable. But what adds to the gravity is the purported involvement of an incumbent CM (his family to be precise) and a former CM and his son. The transcripts do not clearly indicate the amounts involved. Is it Rs 7 and 10 lakh, or crore? Legally, it makes no difference, but the figures are material for gauging the depth to which politics has fallen. It is inconceivable that a potentially winning candidate would indulge in this serious deception game and withdraw for a measly Rs 7 (or 10) lakh when crores are being spent on the election of a panchayat member. And if the figure is Rs 10 crore, it shows what a high-stakes game elections have become. Perhaps it is cheaper to spend Rs 10 crore to make a rival contender fraudulently withdraw than contest the actual election, and spend Rs 20-30 crore.

Money power is the only unsolved problem in Indian elections, the root cause of all corruption. If a candidate spends crores on an election, he will collect a lot more once in office — through government contracts, licences, quotas, extortion, etc. We have often seen candidates file their nominations and then withdraw for money from anyone who fears a division of votes. A senior political leader once told me how several candidates who get money from the party (he mentioned Rs 2.5 crore each) pocket most of it if they sense they have no chance of winning.

The present case also highlights the evil of party infighting. There are examples galore of a leader undercutting his own party and making its candidates lose to sabotage an emerging rival. This case seems to suggest that possibility, too. What can the EC do in this case? Perhaps little. After the announcement of the result, the EC becomes functus officio — it has no further force or authority. Post result, its role is confined to receiving and examining the expenditure statements of candidates within 30-45 days. The power then shifts to the high court, which can entertain election petitions on certain grounds.

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Can the HC, then, do something? Probably not, as election petitions have to be filed within 45 days. If indeed an election petition had already been filed then, and is now pending in the HC, one has to see if corrupt practice was a charge. No new grounds can be added after the time limit. However, if a writ petition is filed, the HC can, perhaps, use its extraordinary jurisdiction and order a CBI inquiry. Even the income tax authorities could step in to investigate.

The judiciary has been the guardian of the integrity of our electoral process. The SC order making it mandatory for candidates to file an affidavit on her financial dealings and pending criminal cases is a landmark. In 2012, when buying votes for winning Rajya Sabha elections had assumed scandalous proportions in Jharkhand, the EC had countermanded the elections for two seats after seizing over Rs 2 crore in cash from a car belonging to a candidate. Before taking this unprecedented action, we discussed the potential response of the court. We were wary that the court could accuse us of arbitrariness in linking the seized money to the election without “conclusive” proof. But this did not deter us. The matter did go to the Jharkhand HC, which not only upheld our order but hailed it as “the only step of such great consequence taken by the Election Commission after Independence”. It even slapped a fine of Rs 1 lakh on the petitioner candidate.

We now have a great opportunity for the concerned constitutional and state authorities to step in, and make yet another attempt to stem the rot. Political parties themselves should debate the issue and consider long-pending electoral reforms.