Elections to the Karnataka assembly are unusually proving to be a low-key affair. This is not because of lack of voter interest or lack of issues in this crucial election but due to the heavy hand with which the Election Commission has enforced the guidelines.
Unprecedented restrictions on the use of vehicles, campaign materials such as banners, cutouts and posters, public announcements using loudspeakers and even movement of leaders have created a stir among a political class used to certain ways of electioneering.
GVL Narasimha Rao.
Some actions of the state government officials at the behest of the Election Commission make you recall that even in T.N. Seshan’s tenure as chief election commissioner, such brute authority wasn’t unleashed.
Consider a few instances: Leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were barred from campaigning in constituencies where they are not contesting, citing Election Commission guidelines. Former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda was not allowed to stay in the Hassan constituency in the 36 hours preceding the polling and was forced to leave for Holenarsipur where he is a registered voter.
An exasperated Gowda retorted, “It looks like they will follow us even to the toilet.”
One gets to see hardly any campaign vehicles on the roads in Karnataka as every vehicle used for campaigning must have a prior permit and that vehicle is expected to be used for electioneering only within the constituency borders. Officials are so strict that vehicles found to have even a flag or a few pamphlets of any party are impounded.
Even Gowda not spared
Gowda’s vehicle was confiscated in the Nanjangud assembly constituency as he was travelling in it with permit from the Chamaraja assembly constituency, leaving the Janata Dal (Secular) leader furious. This was no exception as leaders of different parties met with the same treatment.
As per election guidelines, each candidate is allowed to spend Rs12 lakh towards his or her election expenditure and the commission has appointed expenditure monitors to strictly monitor the same. Every item of expenditure is recorded and candidates are required to inform the monitor before incurring any expenditure. Of the Rs12 lakh each candidate is allowed to spend for the campaign, each candidate has to set aside Rs4 lakh for the campaign of national or state leaders. What is left with them then is just Rs8 lakh.
Expenditure on each vehicle is deemed to be Rs1,200 per day. If a candidate uses a vehicle for three weeks, his expenditure on one vehicle alone works out to about Rs25,000. If a candidate deploys 20 vehicles, Rs5 lakh, which is more than half the available expenditure, is used on just this head.
The Election Commission’s strict implementation of the guidelines has forced candidates to curtail visible forms of expenditure to stay within the permissible limits of expenditure.
Strict enforcement of the code has seriously hurt artisans, traders and small businessmen, for whom elections have normally always proved to be a boom time. These units have suffered a loss of business opportunity. The loss of small businesses is the gain of the media industry as television and newspaper publishing houses have made a killing from political partys’ huge ad spends, which could be of the order of Rs50 crore and more. While door-to-door canvassing was not allowed for 48 hours prior to the date of polling, there are no such curbs on media advertising.
This election has highlighted the importance of media advertising in elections. In particular, the electronic and print media are expected to play a pivotal role in future campaigns. All this must have made the elections a clean affair and reduced the influence of money power, right? Absolutely wrong.
While at one level this election epitomizes new yardsticks in the conduct of elections, ironically, at another level, it has broken all “ballot box” records in illegitimate and unaccounted expenditure in assembly elections.
The inducement of “money for votes” is an age-old phenomenon but what is new is that it is no longer confined to some castes or poorer sections, but cuts across all castes, communities and income strata. Voters seem to rationalize that the candidates and parties indulge in rampant corruption anyway and, therefore, why not “charge” them for electing them to such offices.
Voters have got so used to this sort of bribery that they are even demanding money from surveyors of polling firms seeking their dummy votes in dummy ballot boxes to ensure confidentiality of their voting preferences. Some reporters have also told me of instances where community leaders have mistaken them to be political representatives for whom they were eagerly waiting to strike “wholesale” deals.
The zealous enthusiasm of the Election Commission in curbing expenditure has failed to achieve the desired objective. These measures have only altered the nature of spending by parties and candidates. The focus now is more on direct bribery and a cutback on other expenses.
(G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)