The Election Commission’s show-cause notice to Ashok Chavan could not have come at a worse time for him and his party. Forced to resign as the chief minister of Maharashtra in the wake of the Adarsh housing scandal, he regained some ground by winning the Lok Sabha elections in May. But his party, the Congress, and its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party, suffered a humiliating defeat in these polls. Few expect the alliance to return to power after the state assembly elections due later this year. The EC directive now clouds his — and his party’s —horizon even further. Worse, if the EC finds enough grounds to disqualify him for making a false declaration of his expenses during the 2009 assembly polls, he may find himself in the political wilderness, at least for some time. If his election to the state assembly in 2009 is struck down, he also loses his Lok Sabha seat and faces a ban on contesting any election for three years. The fact that the EC has rejected his explanation in the ‘paid news’ case suggests that the threat of his disqualification is very real. The allegation regarding the use of ‘paid news’ may not have stuck, but the EC’s charge against him on the incomplete disclosure of his poll expenses is strong enough to make Mr Chavan’s defence look rather weak.
However, the more serious aspects of the EC’s notice to Mr Chavan relate to wider issues. The EC did not pursue the charge against him on using ‘paid news’ during his 2009 poll campaign apparently on ‘technical’ grounds. Since there is no legal provision to punish those involved in circulating and using ‘paid news’, the EC could only hope that the media would use their own judgment and ethical standards to curb the practice. It is a timely warning, but it is for the media to act on it. The bigger issue is the EC’s battle against errant politicians who would do anything in order to hide the truth about their election expenses. At the heart of the problem, though, is the EC’s own rule on election expenses. There would always be candidates who would try not to stick to the EC’s limit for poll expenses. It is possible that unscrupulous candidates would still suppress real information on their poll expenses even if the EC’s limit on them is raised. The case involving Mr Chavan is thus a call to rethink the large issue of electoral reform in general and of poll expenses in particular.