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Poll ‘fudge’ sword hangs on Chavan

July 13: The Election Commission has found former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan guilty of fudging poll expenses during the 2009 Assembly elections and asked him to explain why he should not be disqualified.

If disqualified, Chavan will lose his MP status, driving down to 43 the Congress’s sparse tally of 44 members in the Lok Sabha.

The order comes in what has come to be known as the “paid news case” following a petition filed by Chavan’s political opponents.

However, on the particular question of “paid news”, the commission has walked the tightrope. The commission said the complainants had not been able to establish whether any money was paid by Chavan to the publications for publishing advertorials that masqueraded as news.

Chavan has been found guilty of not accounting for several advertisements that appeared in local Marathi dailies in Nanded, the Assembly from which he was elected in 2009. The commission gave him 20 days to reply.

Chavan’s contention was that some other persons had got the advertisements published. Even if the expense was included in his account, the amount — around Rs 17,000 — would not have taken his total bill of less than Rs 7 lakh beyond the then limit of Rs 10 lakh in a seat, he had said. The current expenditure limit is Rs 28 lakh in a seat.

The commission rejected Chavan’s plea that he had no knowledge of the publication of the advertisements.

The Election Commission felt that the size of the amount was immaterial. The commission said if such a plea was accepted, “every candidate would get a licence to file an incorrect or false statement and, if caught, may contend that the suppressed expenditure may be added to his account of election expenses. This would frustrate and defeat the very object underlying the provisions… requiring the maintenance of true account of election expenses…” the commission said.

The full bench of the Election Commission — Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath and Election Commissioners H.S. Brahma and S.N.A. Zaidi — issued the 104-page order.

Chavan today told a news conference that the commission had not found him guilty in the paid news case. The former chief minister said he would respond to the notice appropriately.

The poll panel order came on the heels of a May 2014 directive by the Supreme Court that asked the commission to decide on the pending petition within 45 days.

Riding an unprecedented blitzkrieg in the print and electronic media then, Chavan had won the 2009 Assembly polls from his native Bhokar constituency in Nanded by a margin of over 1 lakh votes to return as the chief minister of the state. He had to step down in November 2010 following the Adarsh housing scandal.

Rival candidate Madhav Kinhalkar, along with five other BJP leaders, had lodged the complaint before the Election Commission.

In May this year, the Supreme Court had dismissed Chavan’s appeal and upheld a previous order by Delhi High Court that the Election Commission had the power to hear and/or disqualify a candidate on grounds of “correctness or otherwise” of election accounts.

Chavan is now an MP, elected from the Nanded Lok Sabha seat in the recently concluded elections.

“A candidate who is declared disqualified by the Election Commission under that section incurs disqualification for contesting further elections to any House of Parliament or state legislature for three years, and also for continuing as member of any such House if he is already a sitting member from the date of the order of the Election Commission and not from the date on which he contested the election or was elected at such election,” the commission’s order said.

The order makes it clear that Chavan will lose his Lok Sabha membership if disqualified.

The commission has already rejected an earlier clarification filed by Chavan. “The commission has decided that the respondent failed to lodge his account of election expenses in the manner required by the act and rules. The commission directs the respondent to show cause…why he should not be disqualified,” the order said.

After being elected to the Lok Sabha, Chavan had resigned his Assembly membership on May 22, this year. The commission, however, made it clear that his resignation would have no bearing on the case. “The resignation of the respondent from the membership of the Maharashtra legislative Assembly… has no effect or impact on the continuance of the present proceedings…” the commission said.