Gopinath Munde’s ‘confession’ at a recent public event in Mumbai that he had spent Rs. 8 crore on his poll campaign in 2009 stands out for its cynicism. The spending limit for a Lok Sabha constituency in the State that year was Rs. 25 lakh (it is now Rs. 40 lakh). The former Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra admitted to spending 40 times the amount he put down in his poll accounts. Dignifying his disclosure of this as opening up a debate on “more realistic” spending limits is nonsense. Money power has already savaged Indian elections. If Rs. 8 crore or more were to become the spending norm, the electorate would be reduced, legally, to voting for its favourite millionaires. Look at the United States, where the last presidential election saw spending of nearly $ 3 billion. Less than two per cent of Americans are millionaires, but 56 per cent of Senators and 47 per cent of members of the House of Representatives are. The less affluent cannot hope to enter a contest, let alone win it. As the fine work of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) shows us, India is fast moving down that road. Mr. Munde is urging us to complete the journey.
In his contempt for the electoral process, though, Mr. Munde has the Manmohan Singh government firmly on his side. This March, in the now notorious ‘paid news’ case involving former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, the Union Law Ministry filed a ‘counter affidavit’ in the Supreme Court arguing that the Election Commission of India has no powers to disqualify a candidate on grounds of fraudulent poll accounts. The court is yet to rule on that. Meanwhile, consider that Mr. Munde broke the law, knowingly filed wrong accounts, and now mocks the EC. In his ‘confession’ speech, he hoped there were no EC authorities present in the audience. But even if there were, he went on, nothing much could happen since elections were just months away. However, the EC has issued him a notice, which could, in principle, lead to action against him under the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 and possibly to his disqualification under the Representation of the People Act. Only one sitting legislator, Umlesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, has ever been disqualified by the EC on grounds of suppressing the actual amount spent in an election. That was in 2011 for suppressing expenditure of Rs. 21,250, barely 0.03 per cent of the amount Mr. Munde kept out of his poll accounts. The EC, the judiciary and the public must convert the opportunity that Mr. Munde’s ‘slip of the tongue’ has provided to crack down on money power and malpractice in elections. And to begin the serious poll reforms we so badly need.