Formation of Expenditure Monitoring Division signals resolve to confront the issue

The Election Commission of India now has a very senior Income Tax Department official heading its poll expenditure monitoring wing to check the practice of ‘paid news' and other abuses of money power in elections. P.K. Das, a serving officer (till recently he was Commissioner Investigations with the Central Board of Direct Taxes) has a full division to support him in checking such malpractices in the overall context of money power in elections. With the Bihar elections looming as a test case in the battle against ‘paid news,' bringing in Mr. Das as Director-General of the recently-constituted Expenditure Monitoring Division signals the ECI's resolve to tackle the issue head on.

Field-level probe

The Media Division of the ECI will receive and process complaints of ‘paid news' at the Commission's headquarters. Field-level investigations, including of those who are into the monetary side of ‘paid news,' will be conducted by the Expenditure Monitoring Division. The Media Division is also headed by a Director- General.

On October 4, the ECI met representatives of several national and State political parties to discuss issues related to Electronic Voting Machines, paid news, money power in elections and the criminalisation of elections. On the question of EVMs, most parties seemed to favour the creation of a ‘paper trail' in addition to the EVM system. They felt this would inspire more confidence in voters.

Unanimity

On the issue of ‘paid news' there was unanimity that the practice had to be stamped out, but there was much agonising over how to pin down, or prove the use of ‘paid news' in practice. Among the suggestions that came up at the meeting were amendments to the law to include ‘paid news' in the list of corrupt electoral practices.

The ECI has issued a number of instructions to Chief Electoral Officers of States and Union Territories through a letter. And just a few days ago, it briefed all the Observers for the Bihar elections (both general observers and those monitoring expenditure) on the problems, including identification, of paid news. The ECI has accepted the Press Council of India's definition of the phenomenon and circulated a copy of the PCI's report on the subject. The PCI has defined ‘paid news' as “any news or analysis appearing in the media (Print and Electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration.”

More video footage

If the ECI's push succeeds, candidate expenditures will be scrutinised on a scale and with an intensity never before seen. There will be more video footage shot of individual poll campaigns than ever before. ‘Paid news' will be a serious entry in records or registers maintained by poll observers. And Bihar will be the test case, if a limited one, for this campaign.

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