So chalk one up for the Supreme Court.
It has just told former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok “Adarsh” Chavan that yes, the Election Commission of India (ECI)can check if you’ve fudged your poll accounts. And that the ECI can disqualify any candidate found to have done so. Even him. The Supreme Court has also told the ECI to conclude its “hearings” into the now notorious ‘Paid News’ case and take a call on the charges against Chavan and others within 45 days. Not much has emerged, though, on the despicable role of the UPA government in colluding with Chavan to undermine the Election Commission.
Ashok Chavan’s 2009 poll accounts are a joy to read. I found them inspirational when I first got hold of them years ago. I still do. Who else, during his election campaign, could have organised a Salman Khan rally for Rs. 4,440? And another Salman Khan meeting for even less, just Rs. 4,300. In each case, Rs. 1,500 was spent on the “loud speaker” or public address system. Another item read: “rent of the meeting place” – Rs. 500. (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sainath/article878588.ece). I made a mental note to spend my retirement years in his assembly constituency of Bhokar in Nanded district. No cheaper place exists on earth.
His frugality extended to media publicity. Chavan placed a mere six newspaper ads at a total cost of Rs. 5,379. The problem: there were 150 pages or more on Chavan in major newspapers. Full pages, many or most of them in colour. Not one of them carrying a single advertisement. Not one of them ever mentioning the name of his outgunned rival candidate Dr. Madhav Kinhalkar. But all of them, so the concerned newspapers insisted, were “news.” Not ads. Not paid for. Just their reading of his achievements and newsworthiness - after he had been Chief Minister of Maharashtra for all of 11 months.
ADS AS ‘NEWS’
That was the core of what came to be known as the ‘Paid News’ scandal. Miles of newsprint, recording a veritable Ashoknama, claiming to be news (and therefore not included in anyone’s accounts). Had they been tagged as ads, they would have cost crores of rupees and Chavan would have violated the poll spending limit dozens of times over. (See:http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article56964.ece). And also (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article57019.ece). Dr. Kinhalkar complained to the ECI, which got quite interested in what was going on.
True, The Supreme Court’s verdict does sound a bit of a no-brainer. Of course you’d think the Election Commission had the right to disqualify anyone who fudged his poll accounts. What’s an Election Commission for, if not to strive for purity in the polls? Mr. Chavan didn’t think so. He went to the court complaining that the ECI had no jurisdiction in the matter. All it could do, he argued, was to ensure the candidates submitted accounts. And that on time. The ECI had no business to check if his accounts were fraudulent.
The Delhi High court to which Chavan went threw out his argument. At this point, the case was being fought by the indefatigable Dr. Kinhalkar and the ECI. The government of India indicated it was on the side of the angels. It would not undermine the ECI, a Constitutional body. Until Chavan went in appeal to the Supreme Court. In low stealth, the government filed a “counter-affidavit” in the apex court. In this, it argued that “the power of the Election Commission to disqualify a person arises only in the event of failure to lodge an account of expenses and not for any other reason, including the correctness or otherwise of such accounts.”.
Translation: you can drown every column with zeroes so long as you filled them up and submitted the account on time. The ECI cannot disqualify you even if your accounts reek of fraud.
Appalled by this, seven angry civil society bodies and three former chief election commissioners jumped into the fray. They impleaded themselves into the case.
If the Supreme Court had accepted Chavan’s argument - that the ECI had no jurisdiction over a candidate’s account - it would mean this: that election expenditures in India are not subject to any scrutiny at all. The body with those powers does not exist. Chavan had argued that such powers lay only with the High Courts. But those are not set up or equipped to monitor elections.
The Supreme Court did not accept it. It upheld the powers of the ECI to a) to verify the correctness of the candidate’s accounts and b) to order disqualification of candidates found guilty of fudging expenses. That would include the practice of ‘Paid News.’
So what got trashed with this judgement was not just Ashok Chavan and some expensive lawyering. It was also the UPA government, so willing to undermine the Election Commission. Led by the same Congress party that had tried so desperately to shield Chavan and friends in the Adarsh case as well.
OVER TO THE ECI
Now it’s over to the ECI facing a deadline handed to them by the Supreme Court. And with good reason. It puts the brakes on endless lawyering. The ‘Paid News’ case dragged on in the Election Commission for nearly three years. Then for more than a year in the courts. Now it should wind up in a month and a half max.
Actually, the ECI can wind it up in a week if it wishes to. It’s heard the arguments of both sides for years now. If it does decide to disqualify Chavan - and it’s hard to see it can do anything else — timing matters. It had already disqualified Umlesh Yadav, then sitting MLA from Bisauli in Uttar Pradesh. That was for failing to include a sum of just a few thousand rupees spent on ads, in her election accounts. (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/article2559714.ece). Can we have a different ruling for one whose publicity ran to so many full pages? And, oh yes, Umlesh Yadav and former Jharkhand CM Madhu Koda were fellow travellers in Chavan’s appeal in the Supreme Court. He goes, down, they do, too.
But it’s complicated. Chavan has contested the 2014 elections to Parliament. He might even win. His 2009 win, now in question, was from the Bhokar seat in the Maharashtra assembly. His 2014 result will come before the ECI’s decision on him. If he wins in 2014 and is disqualified for 2009, will he step down? Morally, disqualification at any level should end the farce. But ‘morally’ is conspicuous by its absence in the process thus far.
When the ‘Paid News’ scam hit the fan, the Press Council of India suo moto set up a sub-committee to probe the matter. The two-member panel of veteran journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K. Sreenivas Reddy produced a devastating 72-page report on ‘Paid News.’ A brilliant piece of work. However, as Swami Beyondananda once said: “The truth shall set ye free - but first it will piss you off.”
It did. Media industry reps on the Press Council hacked the guts out of the report. They formed a “full” drafting committee and slashed it to 12 pages. Why name names, they asked. And removed all the names of the papers that had been named and shamed. (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sainath/article551851.ece). They did not even put up the original report on their website. That happened only when Justice Katju took over as the new chairman of the PCI. Meanwhile, Lokmat, Pudhari, the Maharashtra Times and Deshonnatti, all four newspapers told the ECI the charges of ‘Paid News’ were absurd. Those reams of Chavan hagiography were all news, they argued. And balanced and fair at that. (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sainath/article2523649.ece).
The Supreme Court has handed down a decision of immeasurable importance. A historic judgement that has real meaning for the democratic, electoral process. But the lessons from it are not for Ashok Chavan alone. If Chavan is to be punished, what about the media that made ‘Paid News’ possible? There are lessons for the political class, for parties that have unashamedly used money power at the polls. For the voting public, for a lax administration, for the Election Commission itself.
But most of all, for a media that sold its soul as readily as it sold its space.