India just spent nearly ₹60,000 crore on its election—but does this augur well for democracy?

A report by the Centre For Media Studies estimates ₹100 crore was spent per Lok Sabha constituency during the 2019 general elections.

WrittenBy:Gaurav Sarkar
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The Centre for Media Studies (CMS) released a poll expenditure report on Monday, June 6, which stated that a whopping ₹60,000 crore is estimated to have been spent during polling in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Unveiled by former CEC Dr SY Quraishi at the conference room on the second floor of the Indian International Centre, the report said this amount was spent by various political parties and their candidates only during the Model Code of Conduct—making it the so-called “frontend” expenditure.

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The report, based on secondary information, field studies and analysis, estimates that ₹700 per vote was spent in 2019 elections. On an average, it says, nearly ₹100 crore per Lok Sabha constituency was spent during these elections.

The CMS had earlier estimated the expenditure of the 2014 election to be around ₹30,000 crores—half of what was spent during the 2019 election.

Others on the panel included Dr DR Karthikeyan, IPS and former special director of the CBI, and Dr N Bhaskara Rao, founder-chairman of CMS.

‘Most expensive election ever, anywhere’

How did the expenditure double since 2014? According to the report, the 2019 general election has emerged as “the most expensive election ever, anywhere.”

In 2019, the number of voters increased to 902 million and the number of polling booths to over a million. However, overall voter turnout did not increase. The number of seats contested by women was also almost the same, except in West Bengal and Odisha, where the governing parties took the initiative of selecting more women candidates. In 2019, the number of millionaire candidates continued to be prominent; the same was the case for those with criminal backgrounds. 

Compared to earlier CMS field studies, a high percentage of voters acknowledged or confirmed receiving cash directly for their vote directly, and that this had happened to other voters.

For the first time, the report also confirmed that “bank transfers” of money on the eve of polling has become a new route to lure voters. In the wake of reports that the government—Centre or state—had transferred certain amounts to farmers in some states and women in Andhra Pradesh, voter respondents were specifically asked about it. A quarter of them said the government did transfer money to someone or the other in their community, and that they were informed of such a transfer. One-sixth of the respondents acknowledged that their own bank accounts received such transfers, from either the Centre or state, in the last one month.

The voters specifically mentioned some departments in the context of the bank transfers, including the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas, Rythu Bandhu Scheme, Samaj Kalyan, and departments dealing with agriculture and flood relief. Nearly 10 per cent of the respondents didn’t know who or which department had initiated the transfer of money into their accounts.

The other development which contributed to increased poll expenditure in 2019 was government-initiated changes, including the introduction of electoral bonds to facilitate the contribution of corporates for poll funding in complete anonymity, removal of ceiling on corporate contribution (up to 7.5 per cent of three-year average profits), and allowing contributions of foreign corporations in India for campaigns.

Around 40 per cent of voter respondents acknowledged receiving poll-related messages on their mobile phones just before polling day. Social media and IVRS were also a major head of expenditure. A new major item of expenditure in this poll was “middleman/leader” which has now become a “normal” but distinct trend. The money involved was mostly at the initiative of candidates themselves.

The CMS report describes the 2019 Lok Sabha poll as a “watershed election”. It points to how a major source of poll funding is now corporates instead of from “crowdfunding” via citizens and communities.

Methodology

Over the years, CMS has evolved a PEE approach (Perceptions, Experiences and Estimation) of enquiry, to reasonably arrive at what goes in or what is involved in the different activities at different points of campaigning, as well as the category of different constituencies. This approach, known as the PEE model, helped in coming up with “more reliable estimates on corruption involving citizens in availing basic public services”.

The methodology for the estimation of expenditure during the 2019 election included analysis of past and present trends at various levels. The key six sources for the estimation include:

1) campaign activities by parties and candidates

2) voters’ observation in select constituencies

3) qualitative discussion with independent observers and party functionaries

4) analysis of profile of candidates, constituencies, as well as development profile of constituency

5) news media coverage of contests, campaign, and reference to expenditure related activities

6) secondary data on demographic divides, including caste, and previous CMS poll studies and the benchmarks.

On the number of voter respondents, PN Vasanthi, the director-general of CMS, says, “”We have used findings of our field studies but … we have not mentioned sample as they differ in different rounds and states.”

Of money abuse, spending and EC seizures

Quraishi, in his foreword for the CMS report, said ₹3,377 crore of cash and goods was seized by the EC during the 2019 Lok Sabha election—three times the amount seized in the 2014 election. He says this is indicative of two conclusions: that the abuse of money has increased manifold, and that the vigilance of the commission has increased the seizures.

However, “while the commission may be more vigilant and the amount of seizures may have gone up as a result, the overarching role of money power is in full display in the arena of voter manipulation, with liquor and drugs playing havoc.”

The CMS report says the most amount of money spent during the 2019 general election was on campaigning and publicity—about ₹20,000-25,000 crore. The second highest expenditure was directly appealing to voters, which cost around ₹12,000-15,000 crore. Formal/ECI expenditures came up to ₹10,000-12,000 crore and miscellaneous expenses formed about ₹3,000-6,000 crore. Logistics accounted for expenditure of ₹5,000-6,000 crores.

Forty per cent of the total ₹60,000 crore spent during the 2019 election was by candidates, translating to about ₹24,000 crore. This should be seen alongside the fact that 2019’s elections saw an increase in the number of candidates who are millionaires and who have keen business interests. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a higher percentage of expenditure is being directly borne by the candidates themselves.

Next is spending by individual political parties, which accounted for nearly 35 per cent of the total amount spent, or ₹20,000 crore. Fifteen per cent or ₹10,000 crore was spent by the EC or government and five per cent or ₹3,000 crore was spent by “others/industry (not contribution to political parties)”.

The report says the number of candidates funded even partly by major parties is on the decline. However, the party in power tends to support a much higher percentage of candidates directly. More than one-third of all poll expenditure could be described as “unaccounted for”: this is more than half of what the candidates and parties spend in total.

The report also points out that even in a formal enquiry, no one in the government or among party functionaries, or candidates or their associates, would disclose even indicatively what was being spent. However, figures would pop up in the news media: 2019’s campaign saw more than a few politicians across state accusing candidates or parties based on how much they were spending or had spent on a per vote basis.

An overview from 1998 to 2019

In the last 20 years, involving six Lok Sabha elections held between 1998 and 2019, election expenditure has gone up by about six times, from ₹9,000 crore to around ₹55,000 crore.

It is also interesting to see how the governing party gears up to spend much more than other parties in a Lok Sabha poll. For example, the Bharatiya Janata Party spent about ₹1,800 crore in 1998, which is 20 per cent of the total estimated election expenditure. In 2019, it spent about 40-45 per cent of the total estimated expenditure of over ₹55,000 crore, which translates to about ₹24,750 crore.

On the other hand, in 2009, the Congress’s share was 40 per cent of the total estimated expenditure—about ₹8,000 crore. In 2019, its share was 15-20 per cent of total expenditure, about ₹8,250 crore.

‘Citizens should know politicians aren’t honest’

Newslaundry had a chat with Dr SY Quraishi after the launch of the report, and spoke to him about why was it important for the electorate to know that exorbitant amounts were being spent during elections, and what the EC and citizens can do to keep this expenditure in check.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

You said, “Corruption in election has become the mother of all corruption in the country. If you spend crores, you will have to collect crores. Could you explain what this means?

When you spend crores of money in an election … where does this money come from? You have to collect it from somebody. It is this collection and spending that creates a vicious cycle. To collect more, you have to spend more, and if you spend more, you have to collect more. Typically what happens is when a minister or an MP comes into power, he will call a bureaucrat and say ‘maine ₹10 crore kharcha kiya hai and now i have to repay so you pay me hafta…’

Are there are enough powers enshrined with the EC to keep such exorbitant election expenditures in check?

The EC is trying its best but its role runs only during the election period, i.e. the Model Code of Conduct. As somebody pointed out earlier, there is a lot of money spent before this (before the MCC kicks in) and since they know that the EC will come down heavily and seize all the money, the movement of this money happens beforehand.

Why is it important for the electorate to know that close to ₹60,000 crore was spent during the 2019 general election? What is the takeaway value for a normal citizen?

A normal citizen should know that politicians aren’t honest. They (the people) will have to pay for every service they will receive from the MP or MLA.

According to you, what is something that stood out during the 2019 general election?

I think it was the media explosion. In a multi-phase election, the media explosion and social media combined made a mockery of the silence period which is to be observed 48 hours before the end of every poll in every phase. But because somewhere or the other campaigning was happening, and that campaign was being watched by everyone in the silence zone…

Going ahead, how do we try and contain this sort of election expenditure? What can the EC and citizens do?

The EC is trying its best—which is not good enough. But through voter education, it has to enable voters to vote better.

‘Campaigning is now a year-long process’

Multimedia journalist and commentator S Venkat Narayan, who has been an active journalist since 1968 and was also the Executive Editor and Senior Editor of India Today in 1979-84, was in attendance at the launch of the CMS report on Monday. He is also the author of NTR: A Biography in 1982.

Narayan, who was not a part of the panel but present at the round-table discussion like many others, spoke about how Indians—those living in the country as well as NRIs—can try to digitally cast their votes by using mobile phones. However, panel member Dr DR Karthikeyan asked Narayan what will happen to the secrecy of a vote if people start using their phones to vote. He also asked whether this practice (of using mobile phones) was adopted by any other country.

When Newslaundry asked Narayan whether using technology to vote could be a double-edged sword, he said: “ It could be, but the technology is available and we should use it. Anything you do, there is bound to be some problem with it initially, but just because of that, you can’t say no. Have we done away with banks because bank robberies are happening? We should find solutions to such problems instead of saying ‘nahi nahi, this is not going to happen so let us not even try it’.”

Journalist and author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who also attended the event, said, “How do we factor in the money spent by parties in-between the elections? We have seen in the past five years how the BJP has become a continuous electoral machine. You need huge costs to run this machine.”

He pointed out how Form 20 can be used by political parties to garner a deeper knowledge of each and every booth. “It (the form) gives you a detailed breakdown down to every booth and how many votes went to each party. If this data is handed over to low-level workers, they’d be able to know that 600 people voted for us and 400 did not (for example). This creates an understanding in a village or in an urban colony that these people did not vote for us. We also have to look at the continuous expense of political parties…”

Mukhopadhyay said the annual expenses of political parties need to be factored in because campaigning is now a year-long process. “They begin with declaration of election results and continue till the day of voting. The only gap used to be in between the end of campaigning and evaluation of verdict, but even this was breached this time with Mr Modi’s visit to Kedarnath.”

Mukhopadhyay said the report’s findings are important since citizens can understand that money can buy votes. “It also enables the electorate to not really have any false ideas of impartiality from the electoral process. This is something which emerges out of all these issues … and should provide an opportunity for civil society and governance to campaign on these issues and raise awareness. Raising political awareness is an integral duty of civil society which is outside competitive electoral politics. And this is what authoritarian regimes try to curb.”

He added the report only “touches the tip of the iceberg” and more resources are required to “study the dark areas of electoral financing in India”.

Would a party-wise breakdown of poll expenditure have been more informative? Mukhopadhyay said, “There is no transparency in how much a particular party spends for a particular candidate. In a particular constituency, you have x senior members campaigning for others … there are huge costs of  transport and other logistics involved in this. Also, how much did a party spend on electronic campaigning alone? WhatsApp groups and other mechanisms also do cost money…”

At the end of the day, he said, the advantage always remains with the political party which is currently in power.

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