The Election Commission of India's disqualification of Umlesh Yadav, sitting MLA from Bisauli in Uttar Pradesh, is a landmark order that notches some firsts for India's electoral democracy. Ms Yadav was disqualified on Thursday under Section 10-A of the Representation of the People Act 1951 for a period of three years for failing to provide a “true and correct account” of her election expenses. She had failed to include in her official poll accounts the amount she spent on advertisements, dressed up as news, in two Hindi dailies, Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala, during her 2007 election campaign. The case arose out of an adjudication by the Press Council of India on the complaint of a losing candidate against the two dailies for publishing paid news. After holding the newspapers “guilty of ethical violations” and issuing a caution to them, the Council sent its adjudication to the ECI “for such action as deemed fit by them.” No sitting MP or MLA before Ms Yadav, wife of a liqour baron and strongman, has ever been disqualified by the ECI on grounds of excessive expenditure — and certainly none on account of paid news. This is also the first verdict in the paid news saga — a scandal that has hurt the credibility of the Indian news media and demoralised journalists — and it comes just after the Delhi High Court's dismissal of former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan's petition challenging the ECI's jurisdiction in probing the truth or falsity of his 2009 poll expenses. The High Court affirmed the ECI's powers to do so.
The potential ramifications of Ms Yadav's disqualification are enormous. In the pipeline are the paid news cases of Mr. Chavan and former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda. There will be others coming up too, as the public realises that it now has recourse against the abuse of money power, where earlier it felt helpless. The verdict should, hopefully, act as a deterrent to obscene spending in elections. In its 23-page order (http://eci.nic.in/eci_main/recent/Disqualification_case_Umkesh_Yadav.pdf), the ECI makes the wider and vital observation that “by suppressing expenditure on ‘paid news' and filing an incorrect or false account, the candidate involved is guilty of not merely circumventing the law relating to election expenses but also of resorting to false propaganda by projecting a wrong picture and defrauding the electorate.” The ECI deserves the highest praise for functioning without fear or favour as the upstanding institution of Indian democracy that it is. The question does pop up, though: what about the newspapers and television channels that enable “defrauding the electorate”?