Mahabharat

Sleaze money oils the wheels of the world’s most populous democracy, reports Ranjit Bhushan

Mahabharat
For connoisseurs who like chewing on numbers or for stock market analysts and the bulls and bears whose job and passion it is to look at margins, the ups and downs, and for the army of financial speculators whose life depends on how currency moves, the

netherworld of electoral funding could come as quite an anti-thesis.

You don’t look at small or even big margins here; you look at mindblowing numbers, which unlike the stock exchanges, are neither listed nor accounted for. In fact, the money which exchanges hands for conducting elections in India apparently has no sources of origin and apparently no recipients.

Yet, such is the scale and volume of transactions that goes into conducting elections in India that by any fair estimate — and it cannot be called anything else - it is the most expensive holding operation in the world. So staggering is the scale of money flow that even the combined might of the Election Commission (EC) and various agencies of the state cannot arrive at conclusive figures on just how much money it takes to conduct elections in the country, apart from official figures which themselves are quite substantial.

While elections are undoubtedly costly affairs and it is indeed expensive to keep democracy going, the ambit of unofficial financial funding of elections is so vast that the country lacks the wherewithal to even begin an investigation — particularly when those involved in the clandestine operations are supposed to be the men guiding such an investigation.

There remains no account of how much is spent in campaigning, funds raised by so-called supporters, logistics, transport and travel by choppers, hotel expenses, media coverage, getting crowds on poll locations — the works. Add to it the cost of ‘buying’ a party ticket, which will continue to be a state secret not involving more than two to three political heavyweights.

At various places in the country, unaccounted money worth several crores have been discovered in the most unlikeliest of places – in transport vehicles including helicopters flying out politicians in and out of locations, milk trucks and even hearse vans. Last year,

BSP supremo Mayawati’s chopper was found loaded with money but she brushed it off as ‘party contributions’ from supporters wanting a Dalit raj in the country! Not just that, the BSP has claimed that it did not receive any political donation above Rs 20,000 in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

In EC’s comprehensive reference handbook released this week, the use of ‘money power’ and its attendant risks has been explained succinctly: “Uneven playing field and lack of competition, political exclusion, i.e., certain sectors face disadvantage, co-opted politicians under campaign debts and tainted governance and rule of law undermined.’’

A recent study conducted by the Centre of Media Studies (CMS) says a whopping Rs 30,000 crore will be spent by the government, political parties and candidates in the ongoing 16th Lok Sabha elections. With the spending limit raised from Rs 40 lakh to Rs 70 lakh for candidates, the money spend this time is substantially higher than previous elections. While a relatively modest Rs 2,500 crore went into organising the 1996 elections, that figure jumped to Rs 10,000 crore in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. (See Page 12-13)

So, while the government spent Rs 10.45 crore in the first general elections held in 1952, the 2009 Lok Sabha elections cost the exchequer Rs 846.67 crore. In other words, poll panel data reveals that official expenditure on conducting Lok Sabha polls has increased 20-fold — from 60 paise in 1952 to Rs 12 in 2009.

On April 9, a day before the second phase of polling for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, sleuths of the enforcement directorate (ED) zeroed in on Rs 5.4 crore cash and over 100 kg imported silver and wads of foreign currency from a Delhi dealer in the congested by lanes of the walled city’s Chandni Chowk. The money, ED told reporters, was kept for use onApril 10, voting day.

The raid was conducted by the EC-appointed expenditure monitoring wing of the ED. “Challans’ were issued under provisions of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA), against the trader whose firm was allegedly dealing in import of gold and silver through illegal hawala channels “without proper documents". This sum, a tiny one by standards of money which goes into upholding the largest democratic tradition in the world, was just the tip of the iceberg.

On the same day, all international airports, ports and land borders in the country were put on high alert by the revenue intelligence agency to check circulation of fake Indian currency notes (FICN) and black money during Lok Sabha elections.

According to the directorate of revenue intelligence (DRI), the lead agency to check smuggling and import duty evasion, customs officials posted at international transit points have been asked to remain extra vigilant during the Lok Sabha polls and keep a check on passengers and baggage coming from sensitive sectors, including the Gulf.

The alert was issued recently following an input that there may be a spurt in smuggling of fake currency notes during the polls. As a result, 18 international airports in the country — The EC handbook says several steps have been initiated by them. These include opening up of a separate bank account by candidates for incurring all poll expenditures through cheque or demand draft through the mentioned account, flying squads and quick response teams in each constituency to track down illegal cash transactions, all transport points to look at ‘hawala’ agents, cash couriers and pawn brokers, video surveillance, shadow observation register, accounting teams, media expenditure monitoring committee and expenditure observers from the income tax department assigned to each district.

“The above measures have gone a long way in curbing the pernicious effect of money po-wer...There is still a lot of distance to be covered ...The intelligentsia, med-ia and civil society organisations should join hands with the Election Commission of India to create general awareness...’’ Sage advice but the main issue is that in the absence of political will — and that is the difficult part — any intention will continue to remain noble without its impact being felt on ground. The critical point is this: will those who become ministers at the back of such a system be inclined to dismantle it?

ranjitbhushan@mydigitalfc.com

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