Several distinguished citizens in Karnataka have founded a state election watch committee in February. Formally launched on March 6, the Karnataka Election Watch Committee (KEW) plans to disseminate background information to voters before elections and monitor poll expenses during the upcoming elections to the state assembly and Parliament in the state. Speaking to the media at the Bangalore press club, the convenor Dr.Trilochan Sastry, a veteran of electoral reforms campaign in India and professor at IIM-Bangalore, said that one of the purposes of the committee’s program was to raise voter awareness about tainted candidates of all parties and help citizens pressurize all political parties to give tickets to better and cleaner aspirants for this election.

The committee is composed of citizens from the state with no affiliations with any of the political parties. None of the members are contesting any Lok Sabha or Assembly seat in the 2004 elections, and there is no criminal case pending against any of the KEW members. (members side box).

The committee’s plans are enabled by two key election related rules that are currently in operation in the country. The Election Commission of India has issued orders that candidates have to file sworn affidavits setting out their financial background (assets and liabilities), record of criminal cases, and educational background. The EC has also issued orders that candidates have to file a statement of expenses every 3 days during their campaigning. Candidates for the Lok Sabha cannot exceed an expense limit of Rs.15 lakhs and candidates for state assemblies, Rs.10 lakhs.

Specifically paving the way for civil society vigilance of the elections have been a series access-to-information oriented directives and rules formulated by the Election Commission of India, whose image as India’s progressive and determined apex election authority is only improving every year. The EC has ordered that members of the media and citizens can collect copies of candidate disclosure affidavits from the corresponding constituency Returning Officers and the District Election Officers.

Second, to implement election expense verification process the EC has deputed the District Election Officers and/or EC Observers to scrutinize the expense registers maintained by the candidates every three days using a daily cycle where expenses for one-third of the contestants are checked. The EC has prescribed a standard format for the register of expenses and has ordered the Returning Officers to provide copies of the expenses to citizens in return for copying charges.

The EC has ordered that members of the media and citizens can collect copies of candidate disclosure affidavits from the corresponding constituency Returning Officers and the District Election Officers.
Sastry stated that the KEW proposes to ensure wide dissemination of the candidate financial and criminal record backgrounds (if any) to the public through various media channels. The committee also stated that it proposes to track the filing of campaign expenses wherever feasible and make them publicly available. As part of this process "the KEW seeks the assistance of like minded organizations, citizens and the media for voter roll verification, go out and vote campaigns, poll monitoring”.

Members of the committee hold the view that that citizen and media driven vigilance will help reduce the number of criminal elements contesting. The KEW’s optimism is based on concrete historical data, says Sastry. He pointed that “major political parties are already asking ticket aspirants to fill out internal proformas” that are in effect background checks on the aspirants. Parties are making attempts to reduce the numbers of tickets given new entrants with criminal backgrounds. As evidence of this, he cited the Gujarat elections of late 2002 where the number of candidates with criminal background dropped by half from 18% to 9% due to the EC’s disclosure rules (instituted by the Supreme Court).

According to the KEW, 10 states – Delhi, Rajasthan, MP, Maharashtra, UP, Orissa, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, and AP will have some form of election watch campaign active during this general election, indicating a broad-based nationwide civil society initiative to give teeth to the EC rules.

Karnataka Asst. Election Commissioner P T Kulkarni informed India Together that the list of EC Observers for the state is not yet ready.
The committee clarified that expense limits have been brought in by the EC on observation that candidates incur tall liabilities due to substantial amounts of money spent during campaigns, often lavishly. The focus of their term of office then becomes repaying these liabilities and this is a primary pressure point in candidates' track record against the public interest. Answering a question on how abuse of the election expense limits may be detected and reported by citizens and the media, Sastry said that this is an issue the EC itself is seized of. The committee recommended using the following approach, while acknowledging that citizens were welcome to take their own approaches:
  • Expense registers may be reviewed (at the Returning Office).

  • These may be then cross-verified with observation based reports of processions and events conducted by parties. Back-of-the-envelope calculations may done by citizens to arrive at approximate figures for how much may have spent on an event, given the number of people attending, vehicles used, facilities rented, etc.

  • Money is often spent on cash and liquor at some events, and citizens can estimate a rough total amount, by asking questions.

  • If citizens feel that the expense reported in the register for a campaign is lower than the real expense, they can then report the matter to the EC appointed Observer for the region, or bring it to the notice of the KEW, which will then taken the matter further.

Top EC officials for Karnataka

Abhijit Dasgupta, Chief Electoral Officer
(Off: 080-22864401, Res:26685135, Fax:22869322)

H.C.Nagendra, Joint CEO
(Off: 080-22868768, Res:26321893, Fax:22865339)

P.T.Kulkarni, Asst CEO
(Off: 080-22863873, Res: 28561836)

The committee asserted that citizens and NGOs are encouraged to directly contact the EC appointed officers for various regions to report irregularities in expenses and affidavits. The Chief Electoral Office of the state has the list of all the electoral observers. They said that the KEW was merely a facilitative and non-partisan body and not a legal representative of the citizens in anyway. In response to another question on how realistic the expense monitoring process might be, the committee admitted that every expensing irregularity may not be sorted out in this election.

Suggesting a partnership between citizens and the media, L C Jain, former planning commission member and member of the Committee pointed out that the media may restrict itself to reporting the expenses of candidates from time to time and leave it to interested citizens to take up scrutiny and follow up action. Going further, Sastry pointed out that disclosure affidavits were very detailed documents and that the committee had formats for summarizing the affidavit details (assets, liabilities, criminal records, etc.) of the candidates, which it planned to use for its dissemination work.