The Telegraph
 
CIMA Gallary

If star campaigners drop names, math will change

- VIP expenses to be included in candidate’s account

Calcutta, March 11: If Mamata Banerjee shares the dais with the actor-candidate and says “Dev khub bhalo chhele… oke vote debe”, the Ghatal contestant’s managers will have to reach for the calculator.

If Brinda Karat holds a rally with Subhashini Ali, the Left Front’s Barrackpore nominee, and a supporter holds up the candidate’s picture, it will tell on Subhashini’s poll expense limit.

But if Sonia Gandhi simply stands near Mohammad Kaif on a Phulpur stage and does not utter his name, the cricketer’s poll expenses meter may not tick.

From this general election, star campaigners’ expenses will be considered as that of the candidates if it is established that votes were canvassed not just for a party but also for individual contestants.

Till now, expenditure incurred by star campaigners — a select group nominated by each party — was counted as that of the organisation.

The new norms, which replicate a “Bihar model”, narrow the candidates’ options for squeezing themselves within the expenditure limit imposed in each seat.

The Election Commission had recently raised the limit on each candidate in each seat in big states to Rs 70 lakh from Rs 40 lakh and to Rs 54 lakh in small states. But it is an open secret that many candidates spend crores.

The change in rules governing campaigning means that every time it is established that a star campaigner has canvassed for a candidate, the expenses will be added to the contestant’s account, bringing down his or her limit.

However, this does not mean that the meter will tick on the candidate’s accounts at all meetings attended by the star campaigner. The commission has laid down specific guidelines to establish if a star campaigner has canvassed votes for a particular candidate or not. (See chart)

The norms range from introducing the candidate to the audience to keeping the contestant’s picture in the background.

Mere physical presence of a candidate near the star campaigner will not count as campaigning. This raises the question whether miming skills will be much sought after in this election.

Star campaigners need not be members of a political party but their names have to be submitted to the poll panel within seven days of notification of the election. A party has the discretion to decide who will be its star campaigners.

Usually, key leaders of a party who have national appeal are made star campaigners. A recognised party can have as many as 40 star campaigners while a registered but unrecognised party can have 20.

“The moment the star campaigners deviate from the standard guidelines set by the commission — meaning they campaign for an individual, not a party — their expenses will have to be paid from the poll account of the candidate,” said an Election Commission official.

Till the last general election in 2009, all the expenses of a star candidate — holding rallies, lodging, boarding and travelling, including hiring choppers — were borne by the political party.

The new norms were tried out in the 2010 Assembly elections in Bihar. If a star campaigner campaigns for more than one candidate in a day, the expenses will be shared on the basis of a formula where weightage is given to factors such as distance travelled.

The change has evoked mixed reactions. “I am only two days old in politics. This new norm will not add any value to the election process. Rather, it is discouraging (for newcomers) to miss out on the learning experience of accompanying party veterans on the campaign dais,” said the BJP’s Asansol candidate, playback singer Babul Supriyo.

Poll panel sources said that stringent norms had been introduced to keep track of expenses.

“This will be the first parliamentary election when shadow observation registers will be introduced to maintain day-to-day records of each candidate’s poll expenses. The register will be tallied with the expense records submitted by the candidates and in case of any discrepancy, observers can summon the candidates and seek explanation,” said a senior official.

A fine of Rs 500 can be imposed for failure to furnish supporting documents. The Election Commission also has the power to disqualify candidates.

Poll panel sources said that meetings with political parties to sensitise them about the new rules had been started.

“Meetings with political parties are being held at the DEO (district election officer) level. Hard copies of the model code of conduct, norms regarding monitoring of election expenditure, rate charts and standard operating procedures for holding rallies have also been sent to all the recognised parties,” an official said.