05/11/2015 8:31 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Shameful Reality Of The Elections In Bihar

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
CHAMPARAN, INDIA - OCTOBER 26: Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi salutes the party workers during an election rally amid the ongoing Bihar Assembly polls at Areraj on October 26, 2015 of East Champaran, India. Bihar will hold five-phase elections between October 12 and November 5 to elect the 243-member assembly. Counting of votes will take place on November 8. (Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Co-authored with Shruti Kedia

In the mid 90s, Bihar was famously gripped by a parallel mafia government that controlled dealings relating to land, mining, sand, liquor, excise, forest etc. The mafia not only utilised the levers of the government to further their interests but also ensured that officials' postings were short lived; this meant investigations initiated against them bore little fruit. They enjoyed the support of political parties as election victory depended on the muscle and money power of mafias rather than the strength of the administration or public support. Twenty years later, little seems to have changed. While the mafias may have been neutralised to a certain degree, the influence of money and muscle power in elections has increased disproportionately.

"[O]nly tainted candidates with illegal money and the networks and capacity to spend it can possibly thrive under such distorted conditions."

On 27 October, a day before the third phase of the elections, unaccounted cash worth Rs 6.85 crore as well as 2.45 lakh litres of illicit country-made and foreign liquor worth Rs 4.37 crore were seized by the Election Commission from different places in the state. The Election Commission has also recovered Rs 19 crore in cash in addition to the Rs 18.5 crore seized by other departments including IT officials, state police and the state excise department. Apart from cash, these teams have also seized a colossal 71,920 litres of liquor, 827.91 kg ganja, 9,132 kg mahua, 336 grams of heroin, 8.25kg of gold jewellery and Rs 60.30 lakh in Nepali currency that were being transported to serve as illegal inducements for voters.

While these numbers might appear staggering, this development is not unique to Bihar. Journalist Sreenivasan Jain's interviews during the Maharashtra state assembly elections in 2014 revealed that candidates across the four major parties were spending anywhere between Rs 2-4 crore per seat when the EC mandated limit is Rs 28 lakh. This number pertains only to candidate expenses and not those incurred by political parties, for which there is ceiling under India's election laws.

He writes:

"{G]oing by the average of Rs 3 crore spent per seat, that still works out to approximately Rs 3,500 crore spent by the four parties, more than 10 times higher than the Election Commission (EC) stipulated ceiling... In other words, at around the time we were treated to the nightly hokum of spokespersons sparring over which party is more or less serious about repatriating illicit foreign funds, the same political establishment was secretly mobilising and remitting about Rs 4,000 crore of black money into a single Indian state in the course of just two weeks."

Furthermore, this excel sheet, provided to us by a candidate who contested (and lost) from the recent Jharkhand elections, provides an astonishingly detailed breakup of the cost he incurred while fighting the Vidhan Sabha elections. It is evident from the sheet that a candidate might need to spend a minimum of Rs 2 crore to even stand a chance. In some states, this number could be higher. And in Bihar, where the stakes are now at an all time high for all parties, sources indicate that candidates across parties might be spending anywhere between Rs 4-6 crore on average. This disparity between the EC's limits and what it takes to stay competitive, provides a window for the inflow of hawala and benami funds.

bihar elections

As India struggles to come to terms with the economics of politics, it is now widely acknowledged that election expenditure (Vidhan Sabha) cannot be limited to a paltry Rs 28 lakhs. Stipulated with the good intention of making elections accessible to people of modest means, the low limits ignore the numerous expenses associated with election campaigns. As a result, election expenditure limits have driven campaign spending underground and have forced candidates to under-declare expenses. This ensures that only tainted candidates with illegal money and the networks and capacity to spend it can possibly thrive under such distorted conditions.

"[I]n the ongoing 2015 election, 28% of candidates fielded in the first four phases have a criminal case booked against them in a court of law."

An analysis of the last two elections in Bihar by India Spend has revealed that only 8% of candidates without criminal cases against them won their elections in 2005. In 2010, only 4%, i.e. 82 of 1,851 candidates won their elections. In contrast, the success rate of tainted candidates was 23& and 12% respectively -- tainted candidates were three times more successful than "clean" ones. At the time of contesting elections, these candidates had cases against them in court either for murder, extortion, kidnapping, robbery, dacoity, communal violence and crimes against women, including rape. And in the ongoing 2015 election, 28% of candidates fielded in the first four phases have a criminal case booked against them in a court of law.

However, on the issue of electoral spending by candidates, a former Member of Parliament, now active in the Bihar election campaign was of the opinion that the rumours of Rs 4-6 crores might be a little inflated. He argues, "If an MLA is spending 4 crores for this election, why would a minister be caught accepting a paltry bribe of 4 lakhs (referring to JDU minister Awadhesh Khushwaha). It just seems wrong."

bihar elections

While he could confirm that candidates were definitely shelling out a couple of crores (maximum) from their own pocket, in his opinion, the real expense was the money that parties were spending in organising rallies for party leaders and crowd pullers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has so far held more than 14 mega rallies, Amit Shah 23, Rajnath Singh 15, Ram Vilas Paswan 28, Sushma Swaraj 5, Ananth Kumar 9 and Jitan Ram Manjhi 42. For the grand alliance candidates, the maximum number of 76 meetings has been addressed by CM Nitish Kumar followed by RJD chief Lalu Prasad who has held 62 meetings. JD(U) president Sharad Yadav has addressed 14 meetings.

"Politicians are innovating with every passing day. How is the Election Commission expected to ever catch up?"

When asked whether political inducements/spending always ensure electoral dividends, a National Spokesperson from Congress party offers an alternate "wave theory". Predicting a landslide majority for the Mahagatbandhan, he says, "When there is a wave, there is a wave! You can't do anything to reverse it. Did Modi's advertising blitzkrieg in Delhi work? Amit Shah brought in thousands of RSS and ABVP volunteers from UP and Bihar to Delhi. Did that work? From what we are seeing in the first two phases, Nitish is storming back. Money might have mattered in the first two phases when opinion polls were predicting that the two camps were equally placed. It won't anymore. Ab mahaul ban gaya hai (the stage is set) and the result wont depend on who is outspending the other or providing inducements."

Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once cheekily remarked "no one looks at the colour of money while accepting (political) donations. More recently, a JD(U) leader has gone on to say that "more than caste or political affiliation, it is money that matters."

However, it is Ratnamma's story, a household help, that sums up pretty much everything that is wrong with the system. She narrates an incident from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections: "Like every year, we were offered silk saris and money to vote for their party. But this time along with clothes, the local leader gave us a single gold earring and promised us the other on the condition that he won his election!"

Politicians are innovating with every passing day. How is the Election Commission expected to ever catch up?

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