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By setting unreasonable limits

Limits on election spending only empower the politically connected and further marginalise those with no resources

Written by RAHUL VERMA |
July 11, 2013 4:28:23 am

Limits on election spending only empower the politically connected and further marginalise those with no resources

Gopinath Munde’s revelation about spending Rs 8 crore for his election during the 2009 elections has opened an important and necessary debate on campaign finance in India. The Election Commission,given the law of the land,has served him a notice to explain,within 20 days,the difference in the amount he filed as his account of election expenditure (Rs 19.36 lakh) and his “publicly admitted” amount on June 27. The income tax department has also sent him a notice. Munde and his lawyers will look for ways to produce a written explanation that will try to save him from disqualification or other punishment stipulated by law. However,even if they succeed in clarifying the expenditures made by Munde,it is still an open question as to where he got the Rs 8 crore to spend on campaigning,when his affidavit filed in 2009 suggests that he had assets worth Rs 6.2 crore and approximately Rs 4.5 crore in liabilities.

Our concern is very different from the legal issues raised by the case. We believe that given Munde’s political experience,his statements have to be taken seriously when he points towards an obvious problem in the limits placed on campaign expenditures set by the government of the day in consultation with the EC. In our opinion,a limit on election expenses set by the government should be reflective of the actual cost of campaigning. Ideally,every candidate should have the ability to reach every voter in a constituency. After all,shouldn’t voters make informed choices?

Many civil society activists have argued that the limits on campaign expenditures are often exceeded because candidates are parachuted to contest in a constituency by a party from some other place. Candidates,therefore,have no idea about their constituency,and do not have enough workers on the ground during election season. Well,it would be hard to charge Munde with this. He was born in Beed,began his political career much before Emergency was declared in 1975,contested his first state assembly election in 1977,got his first electoral success in 1978 in the zila parishad election in his hometown,won the Renapur state assembly seat in 1980,was president of the Maharashtra unit of the BJP’s youth wing and in 1986,became the youngest state president of a political party. Munde has been an MLA for five terms,the leader of the opposition in the Maharashtra state assembly,the state’s deputy chief minister between 1995 and 1999,and is currently the deputy leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha. Given Munde’s political stature in a career spanning a little more than four decades,it should not be hard to imagine the team of volunteers he must have at his command.

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Munde is hardly alone in reporting election expenses that are far lower than the limit set by the government and enforced by the EC. Table 1,drawn from election expenditure collated by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) suggests that Munde’s expenses are not very different from those of other leaders. A brief look at the table suggests that most politicians report spending between 10 paise and just over Re 1 per voter in their constituency.

The low level of expenditure reported to reach each voter is,quite frankly,too low to be real. There are two ways to observe the impossibility of the low numbers used by politicians for their campaigns. First,the EC spends far more per constituency on average to conduct elections than the government permits each candidate to spend in a constituency. Estimates suggests that the EC spent Rs 1,300 crore on the 2004 general elections. In short,the EC spent approximately Rs 4 crore per Lok Sabha constituency,despite the fact that it doesn’t have to bear costs such as rent for school or panchayat bhavan premises,which are used as polling stations,or to hire poll workers. Candidates not only have to rent election offices and vehicles,pay some basic amount to their volunteers,print posters and banners,but also bear other miscellaneous costs.

To put this in the context of Munde in 2009,his constituency,Beed,had an electorate of approximately 16.5 lakh and 2,128 polling stations. Whether Munde should have spent Rs 8 crore is a different matter altogether. But in no possible way could he have run a campaign in Rs 25 lakh (the limit during the 2009 elections),or have spent less than the average cost the EC had to bear in Beed. While we do not have the actual expenditures incurred on the conduct of elections in the past few years,the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report details expenses incurred for elections from 2008-09 through 2010-11 (Table 2). This data suggests that the conduct of elections costs more than the amount allocated to each candidate to contest an election,when there is no reason to believe that the expenses incurred by candidates should be lower than those of the EC.

Second,in an ideal world,each candidate would reach every voter in a constituency to offer voters an informed choice. Survey researchers normally charge about Rs 350 per respondent interviewed. Contacting a voter should,understandably,be cheaper than interviewing a voter. Yogendra Yadav estimates that it would cost Rs 100 for a candidate to reach a voter (Yadav argues for state funding of elections and estimates the cost to the exchequer to be around Rs 8,000 crore if 80 million voters turn out to vote during an election cycle). If we take the Rs 100 at face value,it would cost about Rs 15 crore to mobilise all voters in a constituency with an electorate of 15 lakh. Of course,the costs would be different in more densely populated areas.

The level of expenditure associated with running a campaign does raise moral concerns about the role of money in elections in a poor country. The government and the EC have imposed these limits ostensibly to ensure a level playing field among all contestants. It is hard to level a playing field by limiting expenditures,especially when governing parties use their incumbency advantages by allocating state resources to voters through government schemes or through MPLADS or MLALADS.

To conclude,no one can argue against trying to increase transparency and accountability in our political system. But we urge the government to think seriously about unintended consequences before enacting new rules. If the limits set for election expenses are lower than they should be,it is important that the government,in consultation with the EC,revise them. Setting unreasonable limits only leads to unaccounted funds entering the political arena. Those who benefit from access to politicians are more than willing to supply these funds under the table. Civil society activists may demand new laws in the name of the “aam aadmi” to curb the role of illegal money in politics,but often,those demands,as with limits to election spending,only empower those who are politically connected,and further marginalise those with no resources or enthusiasm for the tumult of electoral politics.

The writers are with the Travers Department of Political Science,University of California,Berkeley,US

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