My wager: The unthinkable may happen. That too in Bihar. Without much noise, new chief election commissioner (CEC) S Y Quraishi has armed himself with tools that give him a fighting chance against illicit polling expenses, arguably the core malaise afflicting our elections.
It is common knowledge that the prescribed limit of Rs 10 lakh per assembly candidate is flouted openly.
Concretely, for the first time, the CEC has got himself a director-general (investigation). The appointee, P K Dash, is a specialist in tax investigations, and a low-profile 1982-batch officer from the Indian Revenue Service (IRS). He has national-level experience of five years as commissioner-investigation in the office of member-investigation, Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT). Quraishi has placed 68 IRS officers at the services of Dash to act as election expenditure observers (EEOs), each covering four or five of Bihar’s 243 assembly constituencies. EEOs are distinct from the well-known institution of general observer.
Down the line, the EEOs, for the first time, will have under them expenditure micro observers (EMOs). These folks will be drawn from the shrewd (and scary!) subordinate bureaucracies of the departments of income-tax, central excise, and audit and accounts, many having local domain knowledge. Like the German defenders tailing Lionel Messi all over the stadium, an EMO and a videographer will shadow a candidate at all times. The EMO will oversee the excerpts of all videos and all complaints.
The videographer’s brief is to film every vehicle, tent, chair and table, dais, rostrum, barricade, poster and hoarding. An officer and a clerk will be tasked to view each video (including those sent by citizen journalists and, perhaps, rivals too!), and “fish out the relevant 30 seconds from a mountain of CDs,” and then input the report of expenditure incurred by each candidate.
I won’t be surprised if the institution of “shadow register” enters our political dictionaries this time. The register is simply an account of entries where an accounting team keep post against a schedule of rates, say, each jeep running around, the litti and chokha being served, each microphone and vuvuzela out on hire!
Data will also be picked up from the 24x7 call centres at the district level. Complaints will be submitted to the EEO/accounting team; indeed all calls will be recorded for further verification.
Every few days, the learned candidate (or a nominee) will be enlightened on the state of the shadow register. Also, the candidate would need to have an election expenditure account before filing the nomination. So, if the candidate is nearing Rs 9,99,999 in the shadow register or the withdrawals in the exclusive bank account are quite handsome, there’s trouble ahead. Also, the register and the bank account would be tallied.
The shadow register will be placed on the bulletin boards of the district electoral officer (DEO) office. So, that’s where many TV reporters in the field will be doing their incisive pieces of journalism!
While on the media, after an intervention of the Editors Guild of India and the Press Council, the commission’s D-G (information education communication) Akshay Raut will be doing media expenditure monitoring. For each district, a deputy DEO, a district public relations officer and their associates, including some local mediapersons, will monitor the print and electronic media, including cable networks, for election advertisements and paid news! Raut’s boys will submit a daily report to the accounting team in a prescribed format.
The expenditure and audit training of all these election expenditure staff is going on at the Expenditure Monitoring Cell (EMC). Trainers are past masters of the departments of income-tax, central excise and customs, and audit and accounts. The EMC will supervise expenditure monitoring on behalf of the DEO.
Finally, a surveillance team will be sniffing around for cash transactions between filing of nominations and declaration of results. Flying squads at each police station will undertake a friendly Q&A with any John Doe carrying large quantities of cash in a suspicious manner. So, if you can’t pull out a bank slip or at least some logical explanation for where the cash is headed, the surveillance team can seize the packet! “Packets” don’t just mean cash. Liquor bottles can be seized too!
What’s going against Quraishi is that the prescribed ceiling of Rs 10 lakh is woefully unrealistic. The CEC is candid about that. But the limit is set by an act of parliament and updating it is a tiresome process. Ideally, a more efficient process should replace this strange arrangement with a practical limit.
Fighting the local media over the actual cost of political ads is a tough ask. Reigning paid news is the other challenge. Then there’s the problem of post-poll inducement. Qureshi and his colleagues V S Sampath and H S Brahma can do very little about political geniuses who have, in one case, promised Rs 5 lakh each to the three villages that give the highest number of votes! Strictly, the Brahma-Sampath-Quraishi writ runs only till the time of election results. Post-poll inducements like this one can checkmate them.
Then there are the political innovators who organise “marriage feasts” where there is neither a bride nor a groom and “tonsures” and “birthdays” where the attendees are party workers. With a pliant bureaucracy on the ground, the task of tackling such innovation and sifting the wheat from the chaff is difficult.
Finally, there are the cynics within the IRS. Many bright officers have emerged frustrated in the role of expenditure observers. They claim to have sent reams of reports which proved to be “too much, too late.” One well-regarded officer told me that during his election secondment, he felt “like a dog without teeth.” Perhaps, Bihar would show him the way.
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Under section 20B of the Representation of the People Act 1951, the EC nominates officers of government as observers (general observers and EEOs). Earlier, the appointment was made under the plenary powers of the Commission. But with the amendments made to the Representation of the People Act in 1996, these are now statutory appointments. They report directly to the Commission. Under the constitution, EC also has advisory jurisdiction in the matter of post-election disqualification of sitting members of parliament and state legislatures. Further, the cases of persons found guilty of corrupt practices at elections which come before the Supreme Court (SC) and high courts (HC) are also referred to the Commission. The opinion of the Commission in all such matters is binding on the President or, as the case may be, the governor to whom such opinion is tendered. EC has the power to disqualify a candidate who has failed to lodge an account of his election expenses within the time and in the manner prescribed by law. EC has also the power for removing or reducing the period of such disqualification as also other disqualification under the law.
EC’s decisions can be challenged in the HC and the SC by appropriate petitions. By convention and judicial pronouncements, once the actual process of elections has started, the judiciary does not intervene in the actual conduct of the polls. Once the polls are completed and result declared, EC can’t review any result on its own. This can only be reviewed through the process of an election petition, which can be filed before the HC, in respect of elections to the Parliament and State Legislatures. In respect of elections for the offices of the President and Vice President, such petitions can only be filed before the SC.
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