At the Election Commission’s all-Party meeting in Delhi recently, the BJP was vociferously against any capping of expenditure by a party in a constituency where it has fielded a candidate for elections. All other parties supported some form of curb. BJP, as per a PTI report, stated that funds from corporates, high net worth individuals and crowdfunding result from the mobilisation of a party’s voter base—by extension, it seemed to say, any amount of money spent forwarding the agenda a party espouses will only reflect its support base’s voice. The Representation of the People Act (RPA) provides for limits on election spending in a constituency that an individual candidate must account for, but, as things stand, the actual expenditure far exceeds the limit, with parties across the board loosening purse strings to give their candidate the best shot at winning. As a result, candidates’ account of expenditure incurred/authorised doesn’t even cover a fraction of the actual spending in many cases.
It is therefore difficult to imagine the EC’s cap having any significant impact in the present climate of under-reporting. Besides, a party with a better spending power means that it is well-funded, which may be seen as it having caught the popular imagination and its agenda resonating with the masses better than others. So, why should it not be allowed to ensure its message and agenda reaches the maximum number with the maximum efficacy? While some would argue that there be more transparency about election spending if there are to be no caps, perhaps the more effective route to having clean and truly democratic elections is to have greater transparency on parties’ sources of funding. The present system of anonymous donations through electoral bonds induces a fair bit of opacity. For instance, if the electorate and institutions were told who donated how much to a party or what corporate gave how much to party X, if the party X came to power and took a policy decision that benefits its corporate donor, the electorate and the institutions could build a case for closer scrutiny to judge if there was a quid pro quo. A cap on poll spending won’t achieve much, and assumes that voter decision is swayed by a party’s spending power. On the other hand, transparency on all funding sources would mean more accountability.