Above: Currency worth Rs 75 lakh seized by the Punjab police during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls/Photo: UNI
Seizure of unaccounted for cash and other valuables during elections shows an alarming rise, but the Election Commission tells the apex court that it has no data on the status of such cases registered in the past
The 13th Chief Election Commissioner, TS Krishnamurthy (February 2004-May 2005), once succinctly summed up what influences the Indian voter in terms of what he described as two Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs)—money power and muscle power. A study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections found that while money mattered for gaining entry into the electoral fray and remaining visible in the race, one could not hope to buy votes and win elections. In other words, you are wrong if you think that spending more would definitely increase your chances of winning.
Money power is bad for democracy not because it distorts an electoral outcome (as all major contestants will have access to it), it also keeps those with little money from securing party tickets and contesting meaningfully. As money is required for campaigning, the parties cannot be faulted for giving nominations to candidates who can fund their as well as the party’s campaign.
Therefore, the Election Commission (EC), which is expected to keep an eye on the use of money power by candidates and political parties, in order to strictly enforce the ceiling of legally permissible expenditure by a candidate in an election, has its task cut out. During elections, the EC conducts raids and seizes huge chunks of unaccounted for money, all of which makes headlines. However, what happens after that is anybody’s guess.
It is in this context that the Supreme Court bench of Justices NV Ramana and Mohan M Shantanagoudar was both surprised and intrigued when the EC submitted to it on April 5 that it does not have data about cases of prosecution, particularly the follow-up to the raids conducted and money seized by it during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The poll body claimed that the criminal cases initiated during the course of elections are pursued by the respective state governments.
The bench, therefore, issued notice to all the states and Union Territories to file their affidavits and appear through respective counsels on April 25.
The Commission made the astounding claim in a case in which Karnataka appealed against the acquittal of an accused, Prathik Parasrampuria, by the Karnataka High Court’s Dharwad bench on February 12, 2015, in an electoral bribery case.
Parasrampuria was the sole accused in the FIR registered on the complaint of the then Deputy Commissioner (Revenue), and Team Leader, Dedicated Flying Squad, in Crime No. 107/2014 dated April 11, 2014, in respect of alleged offences punishable under Sections 171E and 188 of the Indian Penal Code.
Under Section 171E, whoever commits the offence of bribery shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both— provided that bribery by “treating” shall be punished with fine only. An explanation under this provision states that “treating” means the form of bribery where the gratification consists of food, drink, entertainment, or provisions.
Section 188 deals with disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant. This provision seeks to impose simple imprisonment on the offender for a term which may extend to one month or with fine which may extend to Rs 200, or with both. If such disobedience causes or tends to cause danger to human life, health or safety, or causes or tends to cause a riot or affray, the offender shall be punished with imprisonment up to six months or with fine extending to Rs 1,000, or with both.
The petitioner’s counsel told the High Court that no incriminating material linking him to any political party could be seized during the raid, and possession of cash by itself does not constitute offences under these provisions. The Flying Squad assumed that the huge quantity of cash kept at the premises of the petitioner was to bribe voters.
The High Court found that there was not even an iota of averment in the complaint as to whom the accused intended to bribe and by what mode he had planned to bribe. It concluded, while quashing the FIR against the accused: “It is not as if there was a complaint in this regard, either by the victim or by any other affected persons….
“The entire complaint allegation is whimsical and fails to make out any offence under any of the provisions of the IPC. The proceeding on such a ragile complaint is nothing but abuse of process of law and deserves to be quashed.”
It is this quashing of the FIR by the High Court, which the Karnataka government appealed against in the Supreme Court.
While adjudicating this appeal, the Supreme Court has apparently enlarged its scope of hearing, by issuing notices to all the state governments and Union Territories to throw light on similar cases and their outcomes.
The hearing of the case is likely to bring under scrutiny the efforts of the Commission to check money power during elections.
On March 26, the Commission claimed that enforcement agencies across the country seized nearly Rs 540 crore. Of these, while the cash component of the seizure was to the tune of Rs 143.47 crore, liquor, drugs/narcotics, precious metals and freebies constituted the balance. The highest value seizures were reported from Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.
On March 29, the Commission announced a sharp rise in the value of seizures: Rs 1,253 crore, as against Rs 674 crore on March 28.
The exponential rise was attributed to Gujarat, showing seizure of 100 kg of drugs/narcotics valued at Rs 500 crore. Punjab came second with the value of seized drugs estimated at Rs 92.45 crore. Subsequent figures relating to all-India seizures, according to one estimate, go beyond Rs 250 crore cash, liquor worth Rs 122 crore, drugs/narcotics worth Rs 676 crore, precious metals worth Rs 183 crore and freebies valued at Rs 22 crore.
As after the 2014 elections, the headlines on the Commission’s massive seizures of unaccounted for money and other valuables are likely to remain just that as the investigating agencies and courts do not display the will to take such cases to their logical culmination.
The Karnataka case, for example, remained uninvestigated all these years, because of a stay order from the Court, which favoured the accused finally.
The state government’s appeal in the Supreme Court against the quashing of the FIR by the High Court against the accused appears to be a case of too little too late, except the academic interest which it has evoked among the judges.