How democracy gets the go-by in elections

Election funding, a money-driven exercise, remains opaque.

By Ajay Tomar

CHENNAI: Saravanan, 30 drives his auto-rickshaw around Chennai extolling the virtues of the candidate for ward 179 in the just concluded urban local body elections in Tamil Nadu.

The candidate he is singing praises of is Kayalvizhi, of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or DMK. 

Caption: Sarvanan (yellow shirt) as he rides his auto-rickshaw around Tiruvanmayur, Chennai.

Photo credits – Ajay Tomar

Sarvanan gets Rs 1,000 a day for six to seven hours campaigning around Chennai. In that time, he drives his vehicle across six kilometers of roads in the ward with a pre-recorded message playing out on loudspeakers. 

Sarvanan’s story might be an indicator of just how much a political party is willing to spend to get its candidate elected. 

Political parties spent as much as Rs 55,000 crore to get the candidates elected, according to a Center for Media Studies report on 2019 Lok Sabha elections. 

Election spending (in crores) by political parties in India over last two decades

Some Rs 3,870 crore were spent by Election Commission of India (ECI) in conducting the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, more than double of what was spent in 2009 – Rs 1,114 crore. By 2019, that number had increased to Rs 10,000 crore.

The findings of the report 

● Rs 100 crores were spent per Lok Sabha constituency, a total of 543 constituencies.

● An estimated Rs 700 per vote was spent in the 2019 elections. 

● A total of Rs 3,475 crore were confiscated along with other items during the elections. It’s almost the three-time of 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, according to ECI. 

● The seizure report included, Rs 844 crore cash, liquor worth Rs 304 crores, drugs/narcotics worth 1,279 crore, metals (gold and so on) worth Rs 987 crore and other items or freebies worth Rs 60 crore. 

●At least 75 to 85 seats where individual candidates spent more than
Rs 40 crore, which is over 50 times the expenditure limit (Rs 70 lakh) mandated by the polling body per candidate in a constituency. 

●Money spent before the announcement of the polling schedule was not included in the final figure, which could raise the expenditure cost. 

●Violation of the “model code” of the ECI has not been to this scale. It includes candidates, leaders and parties, and even the news media, been so much

In the February, 2022 Tamil Nadu civic polls, this was much in evidence. 

Autorickshaws crisscrossed Chennai as candidates vied with each other to win over voters. 

There were processions extolling their virtues, election rallies. Flyers were distributed in street corners. Hoardings were painted. Messages painted on walls. 

And all this costs money. 

While no party revealed details on how much they spent to get their candidates elected, a comment made by current DMK Rajya Sabha MP TKS Elangovan might be instructive. 

“There is a cap of Rs 1 lakh, Rs 25 lakhs for an MLA, Rs 40 lakhs for MP. After this the candidates fund their campaign themselves.”

Extravagant spending

“Even a non-party cadre who owns an auto can come and make 1000 bucks in a day,” said Sarvanan. 

He added that meals, biryani and liquor are what these volunteers are lured with, especially during the elections.

The CMS report mentioned that election expenditure multiplied six times to Rs 55,000 crore in the last 20 years alone.  

“It is interesting to see how the ruling party gears up to spend much more than others. 

This practice is not new but the extent with which it happened in 2019 was significant and has become part of the overall strategy of most of the parties,” the report claimed.

Commenting on how money has become a tool of unduly influence to political process, 

Shelly Mahajan, senior program associate at Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) said that  “Unequal access to funding can hurt the level-playing field. Un-regulated political funding can result in illicit finance flows, co-optation of politics by business interests and wide-spread vote buying.” 

The CMS report also estimated that around Rs 15,000 crore was distributed illegally among the voters in 2019 general elections. 

It mentioned that 10 to 12 percent of voters acknowledged receiving cash ‘directly’ whereas two-thirds said that voters around them also received cash for their vote. 

In a 2018 Hindustan Times article, Simon Chauchard, a lecturer at School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University said that other than gifts, there are also basic logistical costs like short-term wages. 

The candidates pay these to the party cadres and the horde their workers gather for political rallies. Such payments are usually overlooked as an expenditure and arSe not made official. 

About the rules for corporate companies donating to political parties, Mahajan said, “No restriction on the amount that corporate entities may contribute to political parties, no requirement for corporations to report political contributions in profit and loss accounts and the fact that parties need not reveal names of individuals/organizations, who donated via anonymous electoral bonds (more on electoral bonds) need a thorough reassessment.” 

The researcher added that the practice of cash donations to political parties needs to be completely abolished in order to attain transparency. 

“For this to be effective, the Election Commission of India (ECI), tasked with conducting free and fair elections, should be able to stop political parties flouting these laws from contesting,” observed Mahajan.