The unprecedented expenditure rules for the assembly election is giving candidates sleepless nights. Parties and candidates are hiring chartered accountants, chartered accountancy firms and book-keeping experts to stay on the right side of the law. Even former bank employees are being sought.
The Election Commission has approached the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India ( ICAI) to prepare a guideline for political parties. "A core committee of ICAI is working on the guidelines of expenditure. The EC wants to make a proper accounting framework for this," a member of the committee said.
From getting a PAN card to opening a separate bank account for election expenses, the accounting professionals can help candidates (especially first-timers and those in rural constituencies) with every nitty-gritty.
State housing minister and CPM candidate from Dum Dum, Gautam Deb, said: "Such professionals will be hired both at the party level as well as in individual capacities. And they will be appointed for all the 294 constituencies."
Deb, a veteran who has headed the high-profile Housing and Infrastructure Development Corporation (Hidco) from its infancy, is nonetheless jittery on how best to abide by the Election Commission's expenditure norms. "It's not enough to have election agents this time. The process of expenditure accounting looks lengthy and complex. It's impossible for us to do it on our own. We are especially concerned about the candidate in a remote village who might not even know what a PAN card was all about. Hence, professional help is the need of the hour."
Trinamool candidate Tapas Roy said: "Being an advocate myself, I shouldn't be over-awed by the recent poll diktats. On second thoughts, since the norms are stringent, I, too, might get an expenditure agent. In fact, there is my personal auditor who could help out."
BJP state president Rahul Sinha said, "We have told the Election Commission how difficult it will be for candidates to do their own book-keeping. So, we have sought permission for hiring expenditure agents. The moment the commission gives its nod, we shall start getting the expenditure agents." Has his party found them already? Sinha preferred not to give away the names, saying, "They will be there soon after the EC gives the permission."
But it's true that several mid-sized audit firms have already been approached by all major political parties. They will be assigned to keep books, maintain accounts and help candidates with asset disclosures. Chartered accountant Arijit Chakraborty said as much: "Some mainstream parties have started approaching, if not appointing CAs at the party or personal levels. I think it's a great idea to hire professionals for the job. CAs can help render valuable service and making this mammoth job of electioneering transparent."
The separate bank account norm, aimed at curbing the use of black money, is a radical new step but chartered accountants feel there are still many grey areas, and candidates could cheat the EC if they want to hide or manipulate facts. Again, this is where "an accountant's expertise comes in".
A Left Front candidate said: "The norms have only increased the workload of candidates without any guarantee that infusion of black money will be checked. The bulk of expenditure by candidates is done through payments in cash and kind. Where will all the vouchers come from?" Sumit Basu, chartered accountant, thought as much: "There are various types of expenditure. Local travelling, for instance, is one area where vouchers won't be available. Or what about petty cash spending, like on tea and snacks?"
He added: "The job for the CA won't be easy as there will be grey areas where expenditure cannot be substantiated. A registered CA must authenticate all the spending. I think people will hire unregistered accountants instead for maintaining the log book, or creating vouchers for hired cars etc."
It'll be a matter of choice whether to get a CA or simply a bank official who knows accounting like the back of his hand. One thing is clear, though. Another valuable poll expense will be entered in the candidate's expenditure account: the accountant's fees.