As Bihar Elections Near, Could PM CARES Funds Be Used to Circumvent Model Code of Conduct?

Election Commission guidelines have loopholes which could give the BJP a political advantage if the fund’s money is spent tactically in the run up to the election.

New Delhi: Multiple issues centred around the transparency of the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) have been raised since its inception. Adversaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party have repeatedly questioned the necessity of such a fund, especially when a separate corpus for disaster relief by the name of Prime Minister National Relief Fund (PMNRF) already existed. By rejecting multiple Right to Information (RTI) inquiries on the fund’s accounting and auditing procedures, and its spending, the Prime Minister’s Office only added to the cloud of confusion prevailing around PM CARES. 

Now, as the Bihar assembly polls nears, speculation about the possibility of misuse of the fund during the election campaign have been rife in the political corridors of New Delhi. In informal discussions, opposition leaders predict that the ruling BJP may tactically increase PM CARES spending during the Bihar election campaign, and that may land an unfair advantage to the saffron party. 

“From the information available in the public domain, PM CARES can be used for anything that qualifies as disaster relief. Right now, we know it is being used to purchase health equipment and other such facilities. It may also be used for direct benefit schemes and cash support to provide relief to the largely-unemployed poor. In fact, it is one of our demands that such schemes should be initiated immediately,” said one Bihar-based opposition leader. 

“The PM CARES is essentially a private trust. The PMO has refused to reply to any of the RTI queries while also making it clear that it will not be audited by any government agency. While we can merely speculate at this point of time, there is definitely a possibility that PM CARES funds can be used tactically to secure electoral advantage in the run-up to the polls in Bihar,” he added. 

Former elections commissioners speak

Former election commissioners believe that the Election Commission of India (ECI) does not have overarching powers to restrict spending of a fund like PM CARES, and that it has also allowed governments to provide disaster relief from time to time even as the model code of conduct (MCC) was in place.

“The ECI can’t monitor a fund like PM CARES. But it can act on complaints that contend that money from PM CARES is being distributed to woo the voters during the campaign. If the ECI finds the complaint convincing after probe, it can defer its spending till the elections are over,” former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi told The Wire.    

Also read: Fact Check: Have Chinese Companies Really Donated to the PM CARES Fund?

Similarly, N. Gopalaswami, who served as the chief election commissioner from June 2006 to April 2009, said, “Normally, when there are calamities, the ECI has permitted relief in the past. There have been many instances when the government has undertaken flood or drought relief work during elections.”

When asked whether the government needs to seek permission from the ECI, he said, “If the relief is already being given, then it doesn’t need approval from the ECI. It can merely let the ECI know about it. However, if the relief work is initiated during the elections, then the government seeks permission. The ECI doesn’t prevent any relief work.”

However, he added that if the ECI feels that any particular relief work can be postponed, it can ask the government to defer it. 

“For instance, some states have the chief minister’s special relief fund. The ECI in the past has permitted its use if money is given to a single affected family, individual cases. However, for large-scale relief work – like some states give money to the community for eye operations –  the ECI can ask the state government to postpone the fund’s disbursal,” he said. 

He added that the ECI usually acts according to the nature of the exigency. If the ECI thinks a particular relief work can be postponed, it often does so.  

What does the ECI say?

The Wire reached out to the ECI to ask whether the restrictions imposed under the model code of conduct would be applicable to a fund like the PM CARES.   

The ECI replies indicated that the spending under PM CARES is likely to be allowed according to the instructions issued by the commission previously. According to its earlier instructions, the ECI has “invariably takes a humanitarian view on the work that are necessitated due to man-made or natural calamities”.

The ECI’s instructions weigh heavily in favour of the Centre on the use of PM CARES during elections. 

Also read: As PM CARES Collects Crores, National Disaster Relief Fund Still Awaits Bank Account

While referring to the said instructions regarding relief/rehabilitation during man-made/natural calamities, ECI spokesperson Sheyphali Sharan confirmed what Gopalaswami had told The Wire.  

She referred to two letters that detail the ECI’s instructions, one dated March 5, 2009 and the other issued on March 14, 2014. 

The 2009 letter signals that the ECI is not in a position to prevent tactical spending under PM CARES during the upcoming election campaigns.  

ECI Instruction Dated 05.03.2009 by The Wire on Scribd

Paragraph 9 (b) of the letter says, “Payment directly to the hospitals from CM’s/PM’s Relief Fund, in lieu of direct cash payment to individual patients (beneficiaries) will be permissible without reference to the Commission.”

Similarly, paragraph 9 (c) of the same says, “Emergent relief works and measures that are aimed to mitigate the hardships, directly and solely, of the persons affected in a disaster may be taken up under intimation to the Commission.”

The ECI issued a subsequent clarification on the matter through another letter on  March 14, 2014:

“It has come to the notice of the Commission that medical assistance under PM’s/CM’s Relief Fund is also released for various treatment/operation, like heart surgery, kidney transplantation, cancer treatment etc. which are time bound in nature and can’t be postponed without endangering a patient’s health.

“The Commission invariably takes a humanitarian view on the release of PM’s/CM’s Relief Fund for the treatment/operation purpose and it has no objection to the release of PM’s/CM’s Relief Fund for the medical treatments, provided selection of beneficiaries/patients are done by the concerned Government Officials/Head of the concerned Private Hospitals.”

ECI Instruction Dated 14.03.2014 by The Wire on Scribd

Since the PM CARES fund categorically says that its can “support relief or assistance” during a public health emergency, “render financial assistance, provide grants of payments of money” as deemed necessary, and “to undertake any other activity, which is not inconsistent with the above objects”, the ECI, bound by its previous instructions, will not be able to prevent its use even if it is strategically used to secure political advantage.