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Chhattisgarh By-election Scam is a Wake Up Call

One hopes the Election Commission, the police and the high court live up to expectations and seize the initiative in this matter. Public trust in constitutional institutions is too precious to be dissipated.

File photo of Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PMO

The sad saga of corrupt practices in elections has played out in its ugliest form in the Antagarh (Chhattisgarh) bye-election held in September 2014, as exposed by the Indian Express. The tapes of purported conversations among the key players including the incumbent chief minister, Raman Singh’s family and a former CM, Ajit Jogi, and his son show the depth to which our electoral politics has fallen.

The role of money in elections has assumed alarming proportions. Though the problem is not confined to India, the ingenuity of our politicians in devising new ways is becoming legendary. In my book, An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election, I had listed 40 different ways in which the abuse of money power takes place in elections but that now seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Election time corruption is not an isolated phenomenon but is the root cause of all corruption in the country. In our increasingly competitive, no-holds-barred elections, candidates and political parties spend crores of rupees to ensure victory by hook or crook. When they spend millions, they must collect millions. The ‘recovery’ begins soon after. No donor gives money without the hope of some return. The quid pro quo is obvious – the promise of lucrative government contracts, licenses and favours of all kinds. Money from drug lords and crime mafia, perhaps even foreign money, finds its way into the election process as an investment. The result: the cancer of corruption is eating into the vitals of our society and polity. For the citizens, nothing gets done without money.

The role of money power

Besides overspending and bribing voters, there are many other forms in which money plays its abusive role in elections. We have seen many candidates who have made it a profession to stand for election only to subsequently withdraw for money from a rival, who would not want anyone to cut into his or her votes.

Putting up bogus or dummy candidates to cut into rivals’ votes (or to confuse the voters) is common. Sometimes, dummy candidates are put up to circumvent the expenditure ceiling. The expenditure ceiling available to such candidates is used by the sponsoring candidate. The EC has often caught dummy candidates carrying another party’s election materials.

Now that these explosive tapes have surfaced, what can the EC do? Actually, not very much, at least directly. After the announcement of the results, the EC becomes functus officio. Having fulfilled its function and accomplished its purpose, it holds no further force or authorityThe power shifts instead to the high court, which only can entertain a complaint in the form of an election petition. Fortunately, in this case, the petition of the losing candidate, Rupdhar Pudo, is still pending in the Bilaspur High Court. He has come out in the media that he had filed a complaint at that time itselfmaking the same allegations.

Significantly, Rupdhar Pudo was the only candidate left in the fray when 11 of 13 candidates, including the Congress candidate, Manturam Pawar, withdrew their nominations. Pudo has alleged that the personal secretary of the chief minister repeatedly tried to pressurise him to withdraw his nomination for any consideration. He had requested the high court to issue directions to set aside the election. The case is listed for January 21 for recording of evidence.

One would like to hope that court will take up this case with extraordinary seriousness now that it has come into national focus. It is pertinent to mention that the Representation of the People Act, 1951 stipulates disposal of an election petition within six months. It’s a pity that this is one law that remains on paper. It’s ironical that our otherwise brilliant judiciary falls short in these cases. Instead of upholding this law, it itself becomes a defaulter.

Let us consider here what section 86 (6) of the RP Act actually says:

“The trial of an election petition shall, so far as is practicable consistently with the interests of justice in respect of the trial, be continued  from day to day until its conclusion, unless the High Court finds the adjournment of the trial beyond the following day to be necessary for reasons to be recorded. Section 86 (7) goes on to reinforce the urgency thus: “Every election petition shall be tried as expeditiously as possible and endeavour shall be made to conclude the trial within six months   from   the date on which the election petition is presented to the High Court for trial.” ( emphasis added).

Pudo also complained about the lack of action by the Election Commission on his complaint. The EC finally seems to have written on December 31, 2015 to the chief secretary of Chhattisgarh and to its own chief electoral officer to get an inquiry conducted and take the necessary action. Both can ask the police to file an FIR under various subsections of Section 171 of the Indian Penal Code.

The case amply attracts various provisions of Section 171 of IPC.

  • Section 171 A (b) defines the right of a person to stand or withdraw as a candidate as an “electoral right”.
  • Sec 171B (i) and (ii) deal with any offer or receiving of gratification in the exercise of an electoral right as an offence of bribery.
  • The punishment for bribery is prescribed by Sec 171E : imprisonment of up to one year with or without fine.
  • Sec 171 C (1) defines an attempt to interfere with the free exercise of any electoral right as undue influence at elections. This also carries similar imprisonment (sec 171 F).
  • Sec 171 H makes any illegal payment by any one (over ten rupees) punishable by fine.
  • Sec 171 I makes the failure to keep election accounts as an offence (punishable with fine).

The scam is a wake-up call for the various parties to take the case to its logical conclusion: the Election Commission of India, the state government, the police and the high court. One hopes they live up to expectations and seize the initiative. Public trust in constitutional institutions is too precious to be dissipated.

India’s election system is highly regarded across the globe. It is ironical that only a fortnight ago, a regional conference of South Asian countries, represented by respective election commissions, political leaders, academics and civil society, passed what was proudly termed as the New Delhi Declaration of Guiding Principles for Regulating Political Finance in South Asia, 2015. Ugly incidents like the Chhattisgarh election scandal cast a shadow on the fair name that Indian elections have achieved worldwide. We must collectively protect that image. The country’s political leadership has the greatest responsibility to adopt, without further delay, electoral reforms that clean up of the electoral system. These reforms have been pending for over two decades now.

SY Quraishi is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India

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