A campaign finance law that bites

Atal Bihari Vajpayee once said that "every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files". Election expenses in India are a murky business, and politicians spend many times the legal limit to get elected. Not so with the Aam Aadmi Party. Their 28 newly minted MLAs will not begin their careers with a lie. They seem to have spent within the legal limit per constituency; their election returns will likely be accurate. Though subject to a court case and government investigation, little mud seems to have stuck. The list of donors is available online and the party has collected just Rs 20 crore so far. It is certain it was outspent by the Congress and the BJP. The AAP's relative honesty in election expenses presents an idea for its next campaign: reforming election finance laws.

Those laws are currently a joke. The Election Commission imposes legal limits on campaign finance: Rs 16 lakh for a state assembly seat and Rs 40 lakh for a parliamentary seat in most big states. Contrast this with the public confession by Maharashtra politician Gopinath Munde that he spent Rs 8 crore on his 2009 parliamentary election. Munde is unique only in that he is honest. In a 2012 article in the Election Law Journal, Rajeev Gowda and E. Sridharan argue that campaign finance is a key site for corruption in India. They estimate the various ways in which political parties under-report expenses. Their conclusions will come as no surprise to even a casual observer of Indian politics. It is an open secret, so open that the Mundes of the world are not even punished for admitting guilt. I was witness to this brazenness two years ago, when a prominent MP (and spokesman for his party) told me that illegal money was rife in campaigning. But even he was shocked when "an MLA from within my [MP] constituency paid Rs 15 crore to win his election". Also listening was a spokesperson and MP from a rival party. He too was not shocked at the fact of illegality, but by its scale.

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