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New Delhi, Sep 28: Paid news should be made an electoral offence that attracts disqualification so that it acts as a deterrent, Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath today suggested and said inadequacies in legal framework were not allowing the poll panel to effectively check this and other malpractices. He also said that there is a “crying need” for a “well defined legislation” governing expenditure of political parties during elections as its absence was allowing them and their candidates to circumvent the rules. Also Read - Country's First Regional Voters' Awareness Centre to Come up in Jaipur: EC
Sampath, who was speaking at a session organised by the Law Commission, said that when the Election Commission looked into whether it had the powers to deal with paid news it found the “answer was negative.” He said that ‘paid news’ in whatever form or nomenclature is presently not even an electoral offence. Also Read - Former Finance Secretary Rajiv Kumar to Take Over as Election Commissioner on Ashok Lavasa's Exit
“If it is an electoral offence, it can eventually lead to the disqualification of the candidate. Whatever the difficulties of implementation, the very fact that if it is listed as electoral offence, it would act as a deterrent against people using it in the elections,” he said. The CEC said that a recommendation in this regard has been made to the Law Ministry.
He even wondered why the government advertisements during elections should not be considered as paid news. Paid news not being an electoral offence, he said, EC now tries to check this menace by invoking its powers related to candidates’ spending. He said that if a candidate is caught, the amount is added to the candidate’s expenditure. He, however, claimed that when caught, the candidates have found their own way to wriggle out of it.
“When they (candidates) file their expenditure returns, they always build a cushion for this kind of things. If Rs 40 lakh those days was the limit, invariably no candidate would file a return for more than Rs 25 lakh. That 15 lakh will be the cushion for this,” Sampath said. He said that the EC catches instances of paid news but it is like “they were paying some traffic fine, and they will do that and continue with the journey merrily”.
The CEC also said that while the Commission’s control over a candidate’s spending is only after he files his nomination, people make substantial election related expenses before that. “We have a case in Haryana, where a day before the filing of the nomination, a candidate organised a rally in which he was reported to have spent Rs 1.5 crore. Everybody, the whole world knows that he is the candidate. Somebody complains take action against him, you can’t….Only from the day he files his nomination we can start looking at his expenditure,” the CEC said.
He added that people start spending but the Election Commission is constrained “because of the law and the interpretation of the law.” He said that law says that EC can hold an election within the period of six months before the due date.
“We have been making proposals on so many occasions. Why should not the Commission have powers to ensure the purity of the election during this six-month period,” he said. Sampath said that advertisements or paid news by political parties is one thing, advertisements given by government during this period “is also paid news”.
The CEC said that there are many complaints but “the reality is you really can’t do much about these things.
He noted that all limits for poll expenditure is for candidates and none for political parties. “We have seen political parties handling huge amounts of cash. We have seen political parties giving to the candidates huge amounts of cash. When it is caught they will say no, no it is not meant for him, it is meant for him to distribute to others in his district or in his state.
“There is no regulatory framework governing these things. There is a crying need for a well defined legislation governing political parties particularly political parties’ finance,” Sampath said. He said that recently the Commission had tried to come out with some transparency guidelines. He said in countries like the US, expenditure commissions only take care of the expenditure and how political parties raise finance. The CEC also called for a “well defined law” relating to opinion polls conducted by TV channels.