The politics of election
Elections in five states have been announced by the election commission. The polling schedule will be completed in the next one month. All major political parties are busy announcing their manifestos for the concerned state and finalising a list of candidates who will fight the election. The electioneering process has once again thrown up several issues that have wider significance for our democracy. All these need a resolution which will strengthen our democratic polity.
All democracies presuppose differences to be aired in a spirit of debate, meeting the criticism of opposing forces and arguing why their approach is best suited for the country. Unfortunately, this spirit is getting weaker. In recent election campaigns prime minister is being criticised in unparliamentry words, a former chief of army staff, who is contesting election in Punjab, has used almost abusive language against his opponent of the congress party and the chief minister of Delhi is being called “a sneaky little fellow” by the former chief minister of Punjab who is contesting the election. These are very unfortunate developments. Almost all political parties are guilty of this unparliamentry conduct. These are elections for the state assemblies and later many other occasions will arise. Can the parties evolve a consensus that in all future elections they will talk primarily of their policies and programmes and criticise only the proposed manifesto or performance of opposition. But no personal remarks should be made. Political Parties should talk of themselves and not score a point by hurling abuses at the opposition candidate.

A major worry has been the role of money power in elections. Reform in this direction are moving very slowly. The election commission has fixed a limit of Rs 28 lakh per candidate for state assembly elections. The fact of the matter is that the actual expenditure incurred is far more. The election accounts of candidates do not account for expenditure incurred by the political party. Large funds are available with them which is spent lavishly. A whole big box of money is not being accounted for. As a result candidates tend to show expenditure of nearly 50 per cent to 60 per cent of the limit while many of them spend several times over.
This also highlights the need for reforms in electoral funding which is a major source of corruption. Parties collect money from various sources. They are not required to disclose donor source of funding up to Rs 20,000. As a result most of the funding is indicated as from sources below this limit. It is important that every amount which the political party receives must be open for public scrutiny. The election commission has recently suggested that amounts up to Rs 2,000 should be put online with details There is no need to put any minimum financial limit for such contributions All money received by any political party must be shown on its website, including the person who has contributed that amount.
There is a worry that we may be diluting a major policy that has provided strength to our democratic process. Election Commission is seized of the matter and will give its decision in the coming days. Irrespective of the decision, there is need to look at certain issues. There has been a healthy tradition in the past of providing level playing field to all candidates to have a fair electoral process.
Election commission has been issuing directions to the government on various issues. Generally these have been very well respected. One of these direction in the past has been to defer for some time presentation of the budget if it falls just prior to start of the electoral process. This direction has been observed in the past invariably by the state government. The elections start from February 4 and the process will continue till March 11. The actual polling process will be over in all states by March 7. So far budget was being presented on February 28 every year. The government has planned to put its budget proposals before the Parliament on February 1. This is just before the start of polling in the states. Government has so far given no indication that it is prepared to defer this process. It has argued that this is part of their reform agenda and will enable full working season with resources to be available for work. Also since it is a budget of the union government and the elections are not for Lok Sabha but in the states, it has no impact on level playing field

We need to consider several issues in this context. First, government was well aware of the dates of the expiry of term of the five state assemblies which were around mid-March except UP. It was clear that electoral process would start by early February. Why initiate the reform process in such a year? Second, the number of states involved are five and represents about 20 per cent of the population of the country. Can we argue that the budget policies of central government won’t impact this large chunk of population? Third, a substantial part of central funds go to states. Even many central schemes are for their benefit. It is difficult to accept that the budget would not impact states including those under this process. Lastly, how sacrosanct do we consider the policy to have a level playing field in our electoral process? Is it reform versus democracy issue?
Columnist: 
BK Chaturvedi
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