Stern election overseer forces parties into line
Rahul Bedi in New Delhi
THE world's largest electoral exercise gets under way in India next month, when 552 MPs will be elected by 590 million registered voters.
Voting will be spread over four days - April 27, May 2, 7 and 21 - amid tight security and almost all the results known by May 10.
A new government is expected to be in office by mid-May.
Although nominations are yet to be finalised, the number of candidates for the Lok Sabha (lower house) alone is expected to top 6,000.
All Indian elections are supervised by the three-member Election Commission headed by T. N. Seshan.
The commission supervises the election process, monitors participants' campaigns and adjudicates on complaints of vote-rigging and intimidating or bribing voters.
In the 1970s and 1980s India's discredited politicians used money, muscle and even guns to win elections.
But after Mr Seshan took over as Chief Election Commissioner in 1991, he forced political parties into following the rules by closely scrutinising both their budgets and campaigns.
During his tenure most elections have been trouble-free and - on his instructions - bereft of loudspeakers and offensive posters.
Once he even made rival political parties clean up the walls they had plastered with vitriolic campaign literature.
But even Mr Seshan's eagle eye and uncompromising attitude will not be able to enforce the 415,000 rupees (HK$90,900) expenditure limit imposed on each parliamentary candidate.
'It is unrealistic to expect candidates to restrict themselves to this measly amount,' said a ruling Congress (I) Party MP.
He said this was barely enough for two days of campaigning which included posters, banners, hiring vehicles and holding public meetings.
According to a cross-section of MPs contesting an urban parliamentary seat costs around four million rupees or around 10 times the permitted limit.
'Not only do we have to pander to the needs of our supporters and workers, we also have to feed them and ensure a constant supply of liquor,' said one MP. 'Loyalty does not come free.' But supporters are not the only expense.
In previous elections candidates have distributed bicycles, watches, blankets and other gifts to thousands of poor voters in shantytowns.
According to one MP the slums areas are a major vote bank.
But the Election Commission has been successful in curbing this trend and continues to police the election campaign.
It has asked each candidate to maintain a register of expenses which will be scrutinised and appointed expenditure observers from the Internal Revenue Department.
But most political parties are confident of circumventing the commission's guidelines.