The Election Commission of India (ECI) wrote a letter to the Union Ministry of Law and Justice seeking amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
In the letter, the ECI urged the government to confer specific powers on it to postpone or countermand polls based on evidence that money power was used to influence voters.
The move comes days after the ECI revoked the poll notification for two assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu - Aravakurichi and Thanjavur - following reports of large-scale distribution of money to voters by the candidates and political parties.
The cancellation of the elections was taken under Article 324 of the Constitution that empowers the ECI to conduct elections in a free and fair manner.
At present, there is no specific provision in the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to this effect and the ECI is of understanding that the Article 324 should be invoked sparingly.
What are the ill effects of money power in elections?
• There is an undeniable fact that financial superiority translates into electoral advantage, and so richer candidates and parties have a greater chance of winning elections. This is best articulated by the Supreme Court in Kanwar Lal Gupta v Amar Nath Chawla case.
• The above observation can be substantiated from the 2014 Lok Sabha election results in which 27% (or 2208 candidates) of all the candidates were “crorepati candidates.”
• The average asset of each of the 8163 candidates was 3.16 crore rupees. The percentage of crorepati candidates increased from 16% in 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
• The current system tolerates, or at least does not prevent, lobbying and capture, where a sort of quid pro quo transpires between big donors and political parties/candidates.
• Unregulated, or under-regulated, election financing leads to two types of capture: the first involves cases where the industry / private entities use money to ensure less stringent regulation, and the money used to finance elections eventually leads to favourable policies.
• The second involves cases of “deeper capture”, where through their disproportionate and self-serving influence, corporations capture not just regulators, but also the views of ordinary citizens and what they think of as “public interest.”
• Thus, lobbying and capture give undue importance to big donors and certain interest groups, at the expense of the ordinary citizen.
What steps to be taken to curb money power in elections?
The following steps were recommended by the Law Commission of India in its March 2015 report titled Electoral Reforms.
The suggestions involve suitable amendments to the provisions of the Representation of the Peoples Act, 1951, The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 and the Companies Act, 2013 and the Income Tax Act, 1961 that govern use of money in the electoral process.
• Election finance: The election expenses incurred or authorized by candidates or their election agents currently extends from the date of nomination to the date of declaration of results. This period should be extended to apply from the date of notification of the elections to the date of declaration of results.
• The district election officer should make publicly available, on his website or on file for public inspection on payment of prescribed fee, the expenditure reports submitted by every contesting candidate.
• The Law Commission was not in a favour of complete state funding of elections or matching grants to be feasible, given the current conditions of the country. Instead, it supported the existing system of indirect in-kind subsidies.
• Regulation of political parties and inner party democracy: It strongly recommended for internal democracy within political parties in view of growing nexus between industrialists and top echelon of party leadership.
• Political parties should be required to maintain and submit annual accounts. The accounts are duly audited by a qualified and practicing chartered accountant from a panel of such accountants maintained for the purpose by the Comptroller and Auditor General, to the ECI every financial year.
• Independent Candidates: Independent candidates be disbarred from contesting elections because the current regime allows a proliferation of independents, who are mostly dummy/non-serious candidates or those who stand (with the same name) only to increase the voters’ confusion.
The Election Commission of India in its guidelines issued in August 2014 recognised that that money power is disturbing the level playing field and vitiating the purity of elections. Money, often from illegitimate sources, results in “undisguised bullying” and is the primary source to buy muscle power, weapons, or to unduly influence voters through liquor, cash and gifts.
It is against this context, it is high time India undertakes comprehensive electoral reforms in the broader interest of democracy.
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