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Limited finance limits democracy

The JD (U) candidate for the Rajgir (SC) assembly constituency Ravi Jyoti Kumar, former Bihar Police Inspector campaigning in Nalanda district of Bihar.. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar  

Atal Bihari Vajpayee once said, “Every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files.” That candidates in Indian elections grossly overshoot spending limits imposed by the Election Commission (EC), sometimes even by a factor of 20-30, is no secret. If there is one thing that major Indian political parties agree upon it is that spending limits in Indian elections, and the country’s campaign finance rules in general, are unreasonable.



Pradeep Chhibber, Harsh Shah


During a round-table organised in 2012 by the Observer Research Foundation, representatives of both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) conceded that candidates overshoot spending limits by crores of rupees, and called for a radical rethinking of campaign finance rules. India’s campaign finance rules seem designed to fail — not only are they violated repeatedly and universally, but they also create deeper problems for representation and democracy at large.

To its credit, the EC has increased the spending limit over time, “to keep it in line with ground realities, particularly inflation,” as former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi said. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, each candidate was allowed to spend a maximum of Rs.70 lakh in his or her constituency, representing an increase of Rs.30 lakh over the 2009 limit. But that increase did not reduce the number of spending violations.

To reduce the number of violations, the spending limits should, at the least, be closer to the actual amount candidates need to campaign effectively, and that would require an exponential (and not incremental) increase. Rs.70 lakh implies a total spending of just Rs.3-4 per individual in a constituency, which is a lot less than what the EC itself spends on conducting elections.

Level playing field

In terms of the time for campaigning, the period per constituency currently stands at just a few weeks, with restrictions on the resources a candidate can deploy, such as the number of vehicles that can be used. Many of these constituencies are rural, with about 10-15 lakh individuals spread across thousands of villages. Covering these villages poses a significant challenge for candidates.

The primary objective behind the EC’s visibly restrictive campaign finance rules is to level the playing field. The authority of the EC comes from the Representation of People Act, Chapter VIII, which states, “the total of the said expenditure shall not exceed such amount as may be prescribed.” The Representation of People Act, however, does not say what the limit should be and why it should be so low. In our reading, the Act is silent on whether it is the job of the Commission or the state to level the playing field among candidates and parties. The Indian state has chosen to interpret the Act as giving it the right to set unrealistically low limits to create a level playing field. It could have, for instance, opted to focus on making sure that the campaign limits allow for real representation. There are a few reasons why the former focus is deeply problematic.

The first and most obvious reason is that the primary objective behind the rules is simply not being met. Due to the official limits, candidates rely almost completely on unaccounted cash from undisclosed donors, which essentially renders all the other transparency initiatives of the EC redundant. Once in office, the candidates must find ways to repay their debts to these donors, and often do so by favouring them through policy changes or resource allocation. Thus the restrictive campaign finance rules infuse corruption into day-to-day politics.

The desire to limit campaign finance also reflects a rather narrow view of representation. A possible implicit assumption is that wealthy candidates may not be able to adequately represent their constituencies, or at least not as well as their less wealthy counterparts. Ordinarily one would think that the candidate who wins is the one who best represents the constituency’s interests, regardless of wealth status. But the EC assumes that a wealthier candidate is not only more likely than a poor candidate to win the election, but also less likely to accurately represent his or her constituency’s interests.

This is a rather peculiar view of ‘descriptive representation,’ which assumes that effective representation requires shared socio-economic characteristics. The problems with descriptive representation are too manifold to repeat here except one. Descriptive representation renders ideology irrelevant. It assumes that the rich cannot represent the poor. In the U.S., the Senators, who are mostly millionaires, have robust debates on pro-poor welfare policies and even the wealthiest speak for the poor. The simple idea of descriptive representation also does violence to the relationship between the voters and the politicians. In an overwhelming number of constituencies, a vast majority of voters are poor. Could a candidate, no matter how rich, win an election time and time again by not looking after the interests of the poor?

Limited resources

The low limits on campaign finance have a large impact on the very essence of representation. For voters to make an informed choice, it is imperative that candidates and parties get their message across to each voter. For voters to make the right choices, they need to understand and respond to the candidates’ policy positions and sometimes interact with the candidates themselves. With the current rules, a law-abiding candidate would not have the resources (financial or otherwise) nor the time to make that happen. This implies lower levels of representation and consequently greater arbitrariness in voting decisions, both of which are harmful to democratic accountability and democracy at large. Politicians then turn to middlemen to mobilise votes with the all too obvious negative consequences. A number of politicians we have spoken with agree that campaign finance laws need to be revisited.

None of them, however, is willing to speak out, fearing the fallout, associated with the mindset linked to some segments of civil society and the state, one that inherently distrusts private accumulation of wealth. Electoral corruption in India is a product of the institutions and systems that we have put in place. The limits on election spending, along with the other restrictive campaign finance rules of the EC, perpetuates a tightly-guarded socialist mindset among many Indian policymakers, which often makes them wary of individual affluence. By relaxing these rules, the Election Commission will be able to not only increase compliance, transparency and representation in Indian elections, but also help align India’s politics with its new economics.

(Pradeep Chhibber and Harsh Shah are with the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley)

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 10:21:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/relaxing-rules-on-campaign-finance-ec-will-increase-transparency/article7750253.ece

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