The cap on election expenditure is pretty much meaningless and must be removed. Everyone knows that candidates do not disclose their real expenditure and the huge amount they actually spend cannot even be estimated. Besides, not many know that there are no limits on spending by political parties, which can splurge as they like with no questions asked by the Election Commission.
While it is crystal clear that thousands of crores are being spent by all parties these elections, it is important to understand how, where and why. Big money is spent on advertising (print, electronic and now social media), mega political rallies (for transporting and drawing lakhs of people to them), and maintaining the party machinery (office, staff, food and fuel expenses of party workers). Voter buying is another area of major expense , but has now taken the sophisticated form of coupons and cricket kits. No candidate ever offers cash to a voter directly, but does it through his network.
When the Election Commission does random checks and recovers thousands of crores, you know the problem is much bigger than actually reported. It is not just cash, but liquor and drugs too that are distributed. Nobody knows what else is given that is not caught or reported.
It is clear that demonetisation has failed spectacularly in curbing black money as cash is raining on every state and nobody is claiming ownership of it in random checks. The real problem is not the expenditure limit but the nature of electoral politics. The Election Commission should do away with the symbolic expenditure caps altogether and focus on taking stringent action whenever a violation is reported and traced to a candidate or party. If more and more candidates are disqualified from contesting elections, they will think twice before doing anything unlawful.
Political parties are, however, stuck in a vicious cycle. They cannot stop holding rallies because the other parties do it and cannot stop advertising because the other parties will out-spend them on this too. They cannot stop buying votes either, because the other parties are unlikely to and they keep giving tickets to candidates based on who has the “resources.” What we need is election reform that creates a level playing field for all parties and candidates. Even if an independent candidate is really good, she may not win because voters may feel she is not good enough as she doesn’t have the money or muscle power and party to back her. The net result is we have a Lok Sabha that rarely functions and works for the nation and a weakened legislative wing.
Political parties must come together, introspect and put an end to this cycle. But in this era of polarised politics, that thought is likely to remain only on paper.
The writer is co-founder, Citizens for Bengaluru...