State funding of polls still a far cry

By Aparajita Gupta and Darshan Desai, IANS,

New Delhi/Kolkata : The Lok Sabha elections are just a month away, but state funding of polls, regarded by many as the perfect pill to cleanse the country’s electoral system of the influence of black money, remains a far cry.

Support TwoCircles

As many as six committees had discussed the issue for over 25 years before the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government introduced the State Funding Of Elections To Lok Sabha And Legislative Assemblies Bill in December 2004.

The bill could not be converted into law for want of a consensus among political parties since the funding was meant only for national or state parties recognised by the Election Commission.

The idea of such legislation was to gradually shift the entire election expenditure to the state to lessen the burden of burgeoning election expenses on recognised political parties and their candidates and help in curbing the use of black money in elections.

“Besides a lack of consensus, the feasibility of state funding would have to be seen in the context of the large number of political parties in the country,” Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said.

“If it is restricted only to the national parties, the regional parties would protest. And if all have to funded by the state, what is the limit we fix on the spending?” he wondered.

According to him, state financing could work if there was a two-party system.

Meanwhile, expenditure on conducting elections and the money spent by political parties and individual leaders on campaigning are increasing.

This year, the budgetary allocation for the Election Commission (EC) to conduct polls is Rs.850 crore (Rs.8.5 billion), while according to estimates of political party managers, who did not wish to be identified, the combined expenditure on the campaign plus the EC expenses works out to at least six to seven times this amount.

Under the present laws, for the campaign a candidate can spend Rs.10 lakh (Rs.1 million) to Rs.25 lakh (Rs.2.5 million) in a parliamentary poll and from Rs.500,000 to Rs. 10 lakh (one million) in an assembly poll and has to submit detailed accounts for this. The amount varies in different states. The rule, however, is observed more in its breach than in practice.

Bharatiya Janata Party vice president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi told IANS: “State funding of elections will prevent black money from entering the system and promote meritorious candidates. Our party is very much for it.”

He said: “It is not happening because this is a coalition era where there are many regional and unregistered parties who cannot be financed. If the government starts funding everyone, it will involve a huge cost.”

In 1952, when the first Lok Sabha elections were held, the cost to the exchequer to hold the elections came to Rs.10.5 crore (Rs.105 million).

That cost rose enormously in the 1990s – to Rs.359 crore (Rs.3.59 billion) in 1991, Rs.597 crore (Rs.5.97 billion) in 1996, Rs.666 crore (Rs.6.66 billion) in 1998 to Rs.880 crore (Rs.8.80 billion) in 1999.

The administrative costs rose to Rs.1,300 crore (Rs.13 billion) in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. While Rs.850 crore (Rs.8.5 billion) has been budgeted this year, official sources say the amount may have to be revised upwards.

This does not include the cost incurred by the candidates and the parties in the campaign.

Opinion on the issue of state funding of elections continues to be divided.

In a nation, where it is an open secret that a significant proportion of money for contesting elections is provided by the business community – be it the local shop or the big corporates – industrialists are reticent about speaking on the subject.

“I am not aware of anything like that. But some people (industrial houses) contribute to party funds voluntarily. We are not into any such activity,” Hemant Kanoria, chairman and managing director of Srei Infrastructure Finance Limited, told IANS.

“As it is, we are into infrastructure building, which helps everybody,” Kanoria added.

C.K. Dhanuka, chairman, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) Eastern Region Council, opposed the idea of state funding. “I don’t see any merit in this. I think the present system is fine.”

Political parties are more candid about their preferences. “State funding of elections is not viable in our system. This will lead to increase in corruption,” Subrata Mukherjee, working president of the West Bengal Congress, told IANS.

“If this system comes into being, both the old one (funding by corporate houses) and parallel state funding will continue,” he said.

But West Bengal’s principal opposition Trinamool Congress nurtures a very different view. “We are always in support of state funding of elections. The present system is too costly,” Trinamool leader Saugata Roy told IANS.

“State funding will reduce costs for us. For parties like ours, which are confined to specific regions, it becomes difficult to raise funds,” he maintained.

The Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI-M) that leads the Left Front government in the state shares the Trinamool’s views. “We have always favoured state funding of elections. This will cut down on contesting elections on black money,” CPI-M Lok Sabha MP Samik Lahiri told IANS.

“Those who contest the elections are backed by money power. Have you ever seen any poor people contesting elections?” Lahiri said.

(Aparajita Gupta can be contacted at [email protected]; Darshan Desai can be contacted at [email protected])