BJP supporters wearing masks of PM Narendra Modi at a rally in Kolkata, West Bengal on March 7, 2021 (Image: AP)
To draw upon the connection between elections and black money is to state a time-tested truism, however clichéd it may appear. Its true ramifications on the ground are captured well in this snapshot. Consider the following:
-The Election Commission (EC) announced on March 17, 2021, a record ₹ 331 crore in seizures of cash, liquor, drugs and other goods in the poll-bound assemblies of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry. The election in these assemblies will begin on March 27 and counting of votes will be held on May 2.
-Cash and valuables worth ₹ 35. 26 crore held during the October 19, 2020, Bihar assembly elections.
-Cash, drugs, liquor and precious metal worth ₹ 3,456.22 crore seized until May 20 in the run up to 2019 general elections
Come election time - assembly or parliamentary- the Election Commission seizes hordes of 'illegal' cash, and other valuables to check circulation of black money. So, what happens to the cash after it is seized by the flying squads and surveillance teams in the run up to polls?
Officials, retired and serving, that MoneyControl spoke to, said that in most cases where a large amount of money is seized, it is not possible to establish on the spot whether it is linked to the polls or not. The valuables are seized only if the carriers fail to explain the source, as the first step in the legal procedure.
The 'bribery' rules
Distributing cash, gifts, liquor, or any other item during the Election Model Code of Conduct is not permitted under the law. It comes under the definition of ‘bribery’- an offence under 171 (B) of the Indian Penal Code and Representation of the People Act, 1951.
Read | Election Commission has zero-tolerance for money and muscle power: CEC Sunil Arora
The Election Commission deploys Expenditure Observers in poll-bound states with teams of flying squads, static surveillance teams and video surveillance attached to them. The Commission also appoints Special Expenditure Observers, usually retired bureaucrats, for the purpose.
This poll season, 295 Expenditure Observers have been deployed in the five assemblies.
Former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi told Money Control: “There is a proper, well laid down procedure for expenditure monitoring to curb use of black money. The Income Tax department takes the seized money. ”
As per the Election Commission’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) issued in May 2015 for seizure and release of cash and other items, the mobile flying squad - comprising a senior Executive Magistrate, a senior police officer, a videographer and a few armed personnel -reach the spot, based on insider tips about distribution of cash or other items. Additionally, the static surveillance teams are placed at designated locations of each constituency.
Cash exceeding ₹ 50,000, found in a vehicle carrying a candidate, his agent or party worker or carrying posters, election material or any drugs, liquor, arms or gift items, which are valued at more than ₹ 10,000 that is likely to be used for inducement of electors, is seized.
“In case of suspicion, the in-charge police officer of the flying squad shall seize the cash or items of bribe and gather evidence and record statement of the witnesses and the persons from whom the items are seized and issue a proper Panchnama for seizure as per provisions of CrPc to the person from whom the items are seized,” reads the SOP.
If the cash seized is less than ₹ 10 lakh, it is deposited in the district treasury office, giving a week for the claimants, if any, to make an appeal. For cash more than ₹ 10 lakh, the nodal officer of the Income Tax department has to be informed. The claimants should produce proof that the money is accounted for and was not intended for inducing voters.
The police officer has to submit the seizure in a court of competent jurisdiction within 24 hours. A committee comprising three district officials assesses the purpose of the cash and items seized.
While information about the amount of seizures during elections is provided regularly by the Commission, there is no consolidated update available on what happens to the valuables once the elections are over.
“What happens after the money and other items are seized is not available in public domain,” said Maj. Gen. (retd) Anil Verma, of the Association for Democratic Rights (ADR), the election watchdog, which had earlier – and unsuccessfully - tried to gather information on the status of seized valuables through RTI applications.
To one of the eight questions asked by the ADR in the RTI plea regarding action taken against persons/ political parties with regard to seizures in 2019 general elections, the Election Commission in its response on January 21, 2021, directed the applicant Shelly Mahajan of the ADR to approach states/UTs as well as law enforcement agencies such as police, income tax and the Narcotics Control Bureau, to name just a few, for information regarding release and follow up, thereof.
“From the responses that we got, it seems that there is no consolidated information on what happens to the seizures, how many are disposed of, how many prosecuted, etc.,” Shelly told Money Control.
Most of the seized cash is refunded
The issue has reached the courts too. In May 2019, the Centre told the Supreme Court that almost the entire cash seized during the 2014 general election, was refunded. In an affidavit filed in the apex court, which sought information on seizure of unaccounted cash during the 2014 polls and status of criminal cases lodged, the Centre told the Court that ₹ 303.86 crore was seized in 2014.
But, as per a report in the Times of India, the money was released after an assessment was conducted of the person from whom the money was seized, after ascertaining his sources of income. The government also told the court that only three out of hundreds of cases were booked.
The apex court, as reported, was informed that the cases are hardly prosecuted since the officers, who are part of the special teams constituted to crack down on the misuse of cash for elections, get back to their routine work once polls are over, with little chances of a follow up. The Centre's lawyer told the court that the criminal cases were pursued by the state.
Seizure this time
The seizures this poll season so far, the Election Commission said, has already surpassed the total figures of 2016, when assembly elections to these states and one Union Territory was held. The total seizures then stood at ₹ 225.77 crores.
Click here for Moneycontrol’s full coverage of the 2021 Assembly elections