We need limits on election campaign spending

Unless there are certain reforms, the public will continue to bear the massive expenses of these election spectacles

March 11, 2024 02:14 am | Updated 02:15 am IST

Election campaign material at a shop in Majestic, Bengaluru. File

Election campaign material at a shop in Majestic, Bengaluru. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

During the run up to the general elections to Lok Sabha of 2004, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government put out advertisements with the tag line ‘India Shining.’ The campaign led to a controversy over the use of public money. Reports state that an estimated ₹150 crore was spent for this campaign, arguably one of the biggest government-sponsored advertisement campaigns until then. Over the past two decades, this trend has caught up with both Central and State governments spending a lot on advertisements before elections to the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies.

Limits on spending

In a democratic country, it is essential for a government to spread awareness about its schemes and policies. In the first few decades in independent India, this was primarily done through public meetings. In the last three decades, awareness has been spread through advertisements on print and electronic media, which have a wide reach. However, at present, government advertisements published or broadcast before elections tend to be campaigns of the ruling party and establish personality cults. According to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, the Central government had spent ₹3,020 crore on advertisements between 2018-19 and 2022-23. It must be noted that the amount spent was significantly higher at ₹1,179 crore during the election year of 2018-19 as against ₹408 crore in 2022-23. This expenditure is likely to rise in 2023-24 as the general elections are due in April-May. The Supreme Court through its orders in May 2015 and March 2016 laid down guidelines for the regulation of government advertisements. Even then, ruling governments have an advantage before elections when it comes to publishing advertisements that disturb the level playing field.

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A famous quote from Hamlet goes, ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance’. That is meant for customs and laws that are better off being ignored than being followed. In the Indian electoral context, however, it has become a norm to breach the limits on election expenditure. In fact, this breach is considered as one of the essential traits for winning an election.

The election expenditure limit for candidates is ₹95 lakh per Lok Sabha constituency in larger States and ₹75 lakh in smaller States. It is an open secret that candidates of all major political parties breach this limit by a wide margin even when we do not consider the illegal distribution of cash and gifts to voters. In States notorious for this corrupt electoral practice, the official limit is not even a fraction of the actual election expenditure.

In India, there are no limits on the expenditure of political parties during elections. The official expenditure declared by the BJP and Congress for the 2019 elections was ₹1,264 crore and ₹820 crore, respectively. However, a report by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) states that political parties spent about ₹50,000 crore during the elections with the BJP spending about 50% of this amount and the Congress about 20%. The report suggests that 35% of this money was spent on campaigns, while 25% was distributed amongst voters illegally. Most of this funding comes from corporate houses and businessmen. This creates an unholy nexus between donors and elected representatives.

The elections in other large democracies such as the U.S. and U.K. have also become costly affairs. However, it is the opaque nature of most of the donations coupled with the distribution of cash for votes that weakens the process of free and fair elections in India. The Supreme Court has struck down the electoral bonds scheme that will remove opacity in legal donations. But this is akin to putting a band-aid on a bullet wound as the majority of the funding continues to be in unaccounted cash.

Towards a level playing field

The Indrajit Gupta Committee (1998) and the Law Commission report (1999) advocated state funding of elections. This means that the government will contribute money to political parties or candidates for them to contest elections. The feasibility and mechanism for implementing this measure is doubtful in the present context. It requires consensus among all the political parties and discipline in following the norms of such state funding.

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Nevertheless, the issue of the burgeoning cost of elections can be sidestepped only at our own peril. The CMS pegs the likely expenditure during the 2024 general elections at ₹1 lakh crore. In this regard, certain practicable steps for creating a level playing field and ensuring free and fair elections can be implemented if there is political will. These are based on the report, ‘Proposed Electoral Reforms’, submitted by the Election Commission of India in 2016. First, government advertisements should be banned six months prior to any general election. Second, the law must be amended to state that a party’s ‘financial assistance’ to its candidate should also be within the limits of election expenditure prescribed for a candidate. Third, there should be a ceiling on expenditure by parties. This may be kept at not more than the expenditure ceiling limit provided for a candidate multiplied by the number of candidates of the party contesting the election. Finally, additional judges can be appointed in High Courts for speedy disposal of election-related cases that would act as a deterrent against the violation of norms. These reforms would require bipartisan political support to be effected. However, unless they are implemented, the massive expenses of election spectacles will be borne by us, ‘We the people’.

Rangarajan R. is a former IAS officer and author of ‘Polity Simplified’. He trains civil-service aspirants at ‘Officers IAS Academy’. Views are personal

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