The ‘counter-affidavit’ submitted by the Union government to the Supreme Court in the Ashok Chavan case is a scandal. Simply put, it argues that the Election Commission of India has no power to disqualify a candidate on the basis of his or her poll expenditure accounts, even if those have been falsified. It holds that the ECI’s power to disqualify a candidate “arises only in the event of failure to lodge an account of expenses and not for any other reason…” The government is, in the process, calling for a radical and dangerous change in the way polls are conducted in India. If there is one issue on which there is a consensus in the country, it is on the damage inflicted on free and fair elections by the unbridled rise of money power. Now the government argues that the “correctness or otherwise” of the accounts is no concern of the body that conducts and regulates elections. The United Progressive Alliance government is behaving with the ECI the way it has with the Comptroller & Auditor General. It is trying to bat its way out of ugly scams and scandals by seeking to curb the independence of these constitutional bodies. This is dangerous for accountability and for democracy, given the signal role assigned to the Election Commission in our political system.
The fact that this affidavit has been filed in the Ashok Chavan case — notoriously known as the ‘paid news’ case — makes things worse. Mr. Chavan was facing a rough time in the Election Commission’s inquiry into his poll expenses in the 2009 election campaign — especially the money he allegedly spent for ‘paid news’ in his favour in several newspapers. He has challenged the jurisdiction of the ECI on this matter in the Supreme Court. Though the Supreme Court is still seized of the matter and has made no ruling in the matter yet, the Centre’s affidavit raises troubling questions about the government’s motives. Why is it challenging the jurisdiction of the Election Commission over elections? Why is it taking such a blatantly unscrupulous stand, and to help whom? Yet, the damage this would do goes far beyond even the pernicious realm of paid news. If the government has its way, it would mean there is no institution or body that is empowered to regulate poll expenditures in the country. It would also mean the serious erosion of the powers of constitutional bodies like the ECI and the CAG that have performed their duties with diligence and integrity. Over a decade ago, a full bench of the Supreme Court held that the Election Commission had the power to disqualify a candidate whose accounts were not filed in a true and correct manner. That is the way to go. The government should withdraw its ill-advised affidavit at once and not stand in the way of the ECI doing what it is constitutionally mandated to do.