IN the first instance of its kind, on May 28 the Election Commission of India ordered the cancellation of polls in two constituencies in Tamil Nadu because the atmosphere there had been “seriously vitiated” by bribery.

It disclosed that total seizures from the two constituencies amounted to Rs70 million in cash, 429.24 litres of liquor and 33.256 kilograms of silver worth Rs900,000 at one place, and Rs7.5m in cash and 2,145.12 litres of liquor at the other constituency; apart from 100,000 saris and dhotis each gifted by the two parties.

The EC said the election process in the two constituencies, “because of inducing electors by candidates and political parties by offering money and other gifts … is seriously vitiated and cannot be allowed to proceed”.

Tamil Nadu is not alone. The Akali Dal-BJP coalition government in Punjab proposes to spend Rs1.45 billion by distributing around 500,000 LPG stoves and an equal number of sewing machines among women “belonging to the below poverty line families”. The disease has spread all over India.

The Association for Democratic Rights, an NGO based in Hyderabad, does yeoman service in the cause of electoral reforms. It is non-partisan and independent. Its forte is thorough research. On May 21, it revealed that of the 428 members recently elected to five legislative assemblies, nearly half were worth tens of millions of rupees. It had examined affidavits filed by 812 lawmakers pursuant to the orders of the Supreme Court — 294 of the 812 have criminal cases pending against them; 176 face charges of murder and attempt to murder.

Significantly, 76pc of the newly elected MLAs in Tamil Nadu are what are called, ‘crorepatis’. It is very doubtful if legislators even in prosperous countries in the West can boast of such affluence.

We have here the twin spectacle of enormous money and enormous criminality, lawbreakers have become lawmakers with deep pockets. The EC strives hard to check abuse despite the inadequacies in the law; which parliament has studiously refrained from overcoming. It has put in place a system of surveillance. Candidates are required to maintain daily accounts of expenditure incurred.

The district election officer collects evidence while electioneering is on. Election observers are appointed in sensitive constituencies.

Dedicated flying squads are set up in each constituency to detect suspected cash transactions, distribution of liquor or other material to bribe voters. It is well equipped. There is one executive magistrate, a senior police officer, a videographer and a few armed police personnel with proper documents for a panchnama after seizure.

All this is laid down in the EC’s prescribed rule book. But loopholes remain to be plugged. First comes state largesse before elections are notified but are imminent; as in Punjab. The threat of money power is real.

In the US, the Republican-dominated Supreme Court lifted limits to such donations by five votes to four in the notorious case of ‘Citizens United vs. Federal Election Comm­ission’ decided on Jan 21, 2010. President Barack Obama publicly voiced his dismay at the ruling. The majority ruled that prohibition on corporate expenditure constitutes a ban on speech on pain of punishment.

Speaking for the minority Justice Stevens pointed out that corporations “cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process.

“Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.” What he said of corporations applies also to rich individuals.

He spoke of the concept of quid pro quo or debt which holds good in all societies. “We have never suggested that such quid pro quo debts must take the form of outright vote-buying or bribes, which have long been distinct crimes. Rather, they encompass the myriad ways in which outside parties may induce an officeholder to confer a legislative benefit in direct response to, or anticipation of, some outlay of money the parties have made or will make on behalf of the officeholder….”

Legislation is of vital importance in cleansing the electoral process and indeed the nexus of money power and criminality. Laws can go only thus far and no further. Only an informed citizenry can check the abuses.

They can do so only if there are NGOs like the Association of Democratic Reforms to alert them with facts and figures to prod legislators. Only an all-party accord can implement reforms. Of this, alas, there is no sign. The nexus between money power and crime will continue. They feed on each other.

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