Blatant overspending can be stopped only if the Election Commission disqualifies some prominent candidates
The Election Commission’s submission of the list of elected MPs to the President on May 18 brought down the curtain on the general election to the 16th Lok Sabha. A vigorous campaign that began well with sparkling wit, barbs and repartee however deteriorated over time. From the announcement of elections till the last date of polls, the EC seized, among other miscellaneous items, Rs. 313 crore in cash, a staggering amount of liquor valued at Rs.1000 crore, 1.85 lakh kg of narcotics and more alarmingly, 145 kg of heroin. Andhra Pradesh emerged the undisputed leader in the amount of cash seized; Karnataka and Tamil Nadu topped the ranks in the cash-for-votes department. Sadly, if newspaper reports and party protestations are to be believed, booth capturing seems to have returned to the electoral arena after almost a decade. Further, the number of mistakes in electoral rolls and in the names of prominent citizens missing from them went up in these elections in many places such as Pune and Mumbai.
Campaign to attract voters
The unprecedented spike in voter turnout was a welcome surprise, making the EC justifiably proud of its systematic campaign to enthuse electors to exercise their franchise. But the announcement by the election machinery — of rewards for voting — made one wonder whether the EC was also veering toward the view that the average Indian voter has to be ‘lured’ to vote. While providing basic facilities in polling stations is unexceptionable, model polling stations at Rs. 60,000 a unit seemed a mockery of financial prudence. Was the EC bitten by the publicity bug to miss the plot somewhere in its high-profile Systematic Voters Education and Electoral Participation campaign?
From all accounts, it seems that there was no intensive revision of electoral rolls this time. If only a summary revision was done, the chances of the names of long-time voters getting deleted would have been low. Election Commissioner H.S. Brahma, while graciously apologising for the faux pas, attributed the problem to lapses in supervision. The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) on his part promised an inquiry into the alleged large-scale disappearance of names in the Pune and Mumbai electoral rolls. It would be in the interests of the EC to have the summary revision done quickly and share the information with the public so that suspicions of intentional wrong-doing can be removed. But in finding a solution, we cannot overlook the fact that fast-paced urbanisation necessitates a paradigm shift in the maintainenance ofurban electoral rolls.
The Booth Level Officer (BLO) has been a useful intervention but in urban areas he can no longer cope with his task. A study prior to the 2008 election to the Karnataka Assembly revealed that in Bangalore, there was close to 10 per cent change every year in the electoral rolls due to inter-city and intra-city migration. If changes are not tracked regularly in the space of a couple of years, the dissonance will become pronounced. In urban centres, the BLOs, unlike their rural counterparts, may not be living in the same area and may not be intimately familiar with their respective charges.
It is time that a permanent set up is created in every ward in all metropolitan cities and in all municipal towns with more than 5 lakh people taking care of the changes in electoral rolls through the year. In the run up to the 2008 general elections to the Delhi Assembly, former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit approved the setting up of 70 Voter Registration Electoral Photo Identity Card centres, one for each assembly constituency, covering two municipal wards. Such a facility could be part of a multiple service centre providing a number of services to citizens such as providing birth and death certificates, receiving tax payments, redressing grievances on deficient municipal services and so on. Further, it would be more cost-effective if the same rolls are used for municipal elections. It is also necessary that reputed NGOs are involved with government staff and are provided adequate monetary compensation.
Database of deleted names
The Chief Election Commissioner had said in a televised interview that there was “no substitute to diligent and sustained hard work and perseverance.” That has to be enforced at the ground level. A separate database of deleted names should be created for each polling station which should be preserved for five years, and names should be checked for repetition elsewhere.
In an effort to curb the use of money power in this election, the EC initiated a slew of measures. A new expenditure monitoring division was created. The material gathered by these teams has to be put to effective use. While election petitions have to be filed within 45 days of declaration of results, the candidate gets 30 days to file the statement of accounts, leaving only 15 days for an objector to prepare his case for submission before the competent court. While election petitions are filed only against winning candidates, others violating the expenditure ceiling go scot-free unless a case is filed before the EC or it takes up a case suo motu under Section 10A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. The Supreme Court, in the case of the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, recently confirmed its 1999 decision that under Section 10A, the EC is empowered to disqualify a candidate who files an incorrect election expenditure statement. It would be better if expenditure statements and video recordings of the activities of the candidates are proactively shared by the EC with activists, enabling them to take up cases. A dent can be made in the blatant overspending by candidates only if the EC disqualifies some prominent candidates in extraordinary cases.
The EC has its task cut out and its time it concentrated on its primary tasks.
(N. Gopalaswami is a former Chief Election Commissioner.)