New Delhi: Responding to criticism that it has put unusual curbs on campaigning in the Karnataka elections that end on Thursday, the Election Commission of India says it was simply following the rules.
“We always look at following the model code of conduct,” election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi told Mint in an interview. “Our aim is to provide a level playing field for all political parties and candidates.”
The commission has been accused of imposing strict guidelines that sharply curbed the use of vehicles, campaign materials, such as banners and posters, public announcements using loudspeakers and overall expenditure.
“We banned the use of posters and banners to prevent defacement of our cities,” says Quraishi. “Loudspeakers are allowed on vehicles only when they are stationary so that the spread of noise could be reduced.”
On expenditure (Rs10 lakh) permitted per candidate, the election commissioner says if parties are allowed to exceed the limit, those with money will get an advantage. “If political parties believe Rs10 lakh is unreasonable, they should get Parliament to change it.”
Most political parties have criticized the commission’s moves. “While we appreciate the EC’s efforts to conduct free and fair elections, we believe such unreasonable restrictions do not strengthen the case of fair polls. These restrictions are taking away the legitimate rights of political parties to present their perspective to the poor,” says Congress party spokesperson Manish Tiwari.
The commission dismisses such arguments. “Door-to-door canvassing is permitted and our visits to Karnataka have shown that such campaigning promotes inter-personal relations between voters and candidates,” notes Quraishi.
Political parties have also claimed that voter turnout in the state was affected due to the less visible campaigning. The commission counters that the turnout has remained the same or has seen a marginal increase since the last assembly polls. The first and second phases saw a voter turnout of 66% and 60%, respectively. In 2004, the total turnout was 65%.
Not everyone buys that the commission has been totally effective in stopping the candidates from doing what they want. “A candidate is allowed to spend just Rs10 lakh, but each candidate in Karnataka today spends at least Rs3-5 crore,” says G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a pollster and political analyst. Rao also writes Mint’s Monday column The Bottom Line.
Indeed, “if those who wish to spend cannot do so through fair means, they will resort to other tactics,” says a senior BJP leader in Karnataka, who doesn’t want to be named.
“We do fear that money is going underground,” concedes Quraishi.
“However, such tactics existed earlier as well though we do sense that chances of them occurring have increased marginally with these restrictions. We are probing it,” he says.
With assembly elections due in as many as six states during 2008, the commission says there won’t be any let up on its part. “The guidelines will be enforced strictly. We are also trying to develop a critical analysis index to determine sensitive polling booths,” says Quraishi.