In line with the constitutional mandate to curb the corrupting influence of money power in elections, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has issued detailed guidelines and set up an elaborate administrative machinery to monitor the expenses of candidates and ensure a free and fair poll. The ECI’s detailed compendium of instructions on Election Expenditure Monitoring (ECM) that is updated and issued before every general election, has come on top of hikes effected in the election expenditure limit for each parliamentary constituency to Rs.70 lakh from Rs.40 lakh for the bigger States based on a formula linked to a cost inflation index. The bulky ECM compendium, that deals with matters ranging from maintenance of accounts by each candidate, training of election agents on expenditure monitoring, maintenance of registers, appointment of election expenditure observers for each constituency and preparation of daily activity reports by flying squads on seizure of cash and so on, to norms for political parties and even “the language in which the accounts of election expenses may be filed”, is bewildering in terms of its details.
Apart from the irritation some of these norms could cause to normal and bona fide day-to-day cash-carrying transactions by even ordinary citizens and businesses, the most hotly contested rule now, amidst the poll campaign, relates to adding the costs of campaigning by party leaders and star campaigners to the expenditure of individual candidates. The demands on time made on and security considerations of VVIP leaders who campaign for their respective political parties require a certain mode of campaigning that includes the use of aircraft and helicopters. This invariably involves high-cost logistics, besides expenses on special platforms and enclosures prescribed by security agencies to ensure protection. If the ECI accepts the basic logic that expenditure on ‘general propaganda’ of political parties should not be added to candidates’ expenditure, then it implies that some allowance needs to be made for their ‘star campaigners’ who lead those political parties. The general propaganda of political parties cannot logically exclude campaigning by leaders. Or else, it results in an anomalous situation of ‘star campaigners’ like Sonia Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Jayalalithaa having to campaign sans their party candidates. The leaders cannot even mention the names of a candidate, lest the candidate be burdened with a bill that includes the travel costs of the leaders and overshoots the ceiling. The experience with such a rule, as highlighted by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, should prompt the ECI to revisit the norm.