Business Standard

Unexplaine­d money is elephant in room for EC

Nearly ~3,400 cr cash seized in polls in 2022-23, up 835% over 2017-18

- ARCHIS MOHAN New Delhi, 20 March

During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the then President Ram Nath Kovind had called off polling in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore seat on the recommenda­tion of Election Commission (EC), which had seized ~11.5 crore in unaccounte­d cash meant to lure voters.

The decision to scrap polling on a Lok Sabha seat, although rare, seemingly failed to serve the purpose.

Two months later, in the run-up to the election in Vellore, EC officials again seized ~3.5 crore in cash. But this time, EC went ahead with the polling.

Use of money and other goodies to woo electorate­s has been an elephant in the room for the EC.

Announcing the schedule for the Lok Sabha polls on Saturday, Chief Election Commission­er Rajiv Kumar shared data of the “exponentia­l increase in seizures in the last 11 Assembly elections”.

Nearly ~3,400 crore in cash and other items were seized in the elections in 2022-23, an increase of 835 per cent over 2017-18, the data showed.

Estimates of election-related expenditur­e of political parties and candidates, and EC’S seizures, reveal barely the tip of the total election spends of candidates and political parties.

According to a study by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), a think tank, over ~1.5 trillion was spent across various elections held in India from 2009 to 2014.

It termed it a “conservati­ve estimate”, and said more than half of this was unaccounte­d, or black, money.

According to its report, ‘Poll Expenditur­e, the 2019 Elections’, the CMS estimated that ~55,000-60,000 crore were spent on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It said it couldn’t account for all the expenditur­e of political parties and candidates.

“On an average, nearly ~100 crore per Lok Sabha constituen­cy has been spent. Overall, it is estimated about ~700 per vote was spent in the 2019 elections,” it noted.

Of the total figure, only ~10-12,000 crore, or 15-20 per cent, were spent by the EC or through formal channels, the CMS report said.

The CMS estimated a total election expenditur­e of ~9,000 crore for the 1998 LS polls.

The total estimated election expense increased to ~10,000 crore in 1999, ~14,000 crore in 2004, ~20,000 crore in 2009 and ~30,000 crore in 2014, the CMS estimated.

It stated that of these expenditur­es, the EC’S spent in conducting the polls was less than 15 per cent.

The ‘high-level committee’ on simultaneo­us polls, in its report submitted earlier this month, relied on an analysis by economists Prachi Mishra and NK Singh that an estimated ~4 to 7 trillion, were spent on elections in the preceding five years. The committee said it based its data on “publicly reported estimates of conducting elections”.

In 2009, the Associatio­n for Democratic Reforms (ADR) analysed accounts of expenditur­e submitted by all 6,753 candidates who contested the LS polls that year.

Of these, only four candidates admitted to spending more than the EC mandated limit for expenditur­e.

Another 30 admitted to having spent 90 to 95 per cent of the limit. The remaining 6,719 candidates said they spent at best 45 to 50 per cent of the limit, says ADR founder Jagdeep Chhokar.

“So, an astounding 99.99 per cent (recurring) of the candidates said they spent barely 50 per cent of the expense limit,” he said.

Chhokar says if India is moving towards a cashless economy, why can’t political parties receive funds and make payments digitally.

“Where is the need for cash transactio­ns and why should political parties be receiving funds below a certain threshold, such as ~20,000 or ~2,000, in cash?” he asked.

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