Election Expenditure

No Money, No Vote

Yogendra Yadav

Have you not heard of Munugode? I was in Telangana, trying to make sense of the forthcoming elections. Every conversation began and ended with money.

This was my turn to be smiled at. A few weeks ago I had smiled at the naiveté of my movement friends, when someone from Bihar was shocked that every MLA candidate spends more than a crore, when someone from Madhya Pradesh informed that you don’t get a ticket unless you have at least Rs 2 crore to spend.

I smiled because a few months ago, I was in Karnataka. I had a chance encounter with a failed aspirant from one of the major parties. Dejected and bitter, they were complaining about the lack of transparency in the selection of candidates. I was all sympathy. “What should I do now with all my investment?” the candidate turned to me. I mumbled something about politics being a long-term game where no investment goes waste. “No, that’s not what I was asking. I have a concrete problem. What should I do with the 40,000 colour TV sets that I bought for distribution when I was assured a ticket? They told me things get expensive close to the elections, so I bought these well in time for a discount.” That would be at least Rs 40 crore even if we price a bottom-of-the-range discounted TV at Rs 10,000 a piece, I reckoned.

Stunned by this disclosure, I made inquiries in political circles. Sure, this particular candidate’s budget was over the top, but an overall expenditure in this range was the norm. The total expenditure of each candidate in a normal rural assembly constituency in Karnataka was Rs 20 – 30 crore, a little lower in reserved seats and a little higher in prosperous regions. In the urban seats, especially in and around Bengaluru, the expenditure was to the tune of Rs 40-50 crore. Everyone spoke about this candidate in a constituency at the periphery of Bengaluru who was believed to have spent Rs 150 crore.

Since then, I have been trying to get a sense of the scale of money in the ongoing elections. Karnataka is on the higher side, but so are most of the southern and western states, except, perhaps, Kerala. The much-maligned corrupt politics of the Hindi heartland cannot compete with them. The more prosperous a state, the higher the rates. But in the northern states as well, every serious assembly candidate spends around Rs 5 to 10 crore. Assuming an average of Rs 10 crore across the states and at least three serious candidates per constituency, this adds up to about Rs 1.25 lakh crore just for assembly elections across the country. And perhaps we should think of a similar amount for the forthcoming LokSabha elections.

This is when I encountered Munugode. I was in Telangana sharing my dismay at the level of election expenditure in Karnataka. This time, my friends smiled at me. “Just Rs 20-30 crore? You must be joking. Have you not heard of Munugode?” I vaguely remembered this by-election that was held in the middle of Bharat JodoYatra in November 2022. I recalled tales of how desperate Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao was to win this by-election for his newly christened Bharat RashtraSamithi (BRS). The Congress was keen to defend the seat it held, and the BharatiyaJanata Party to demonstrate its growing clout.

The consequences were staggering, at least in terms of election expenditure. It was not limited to rent-a-crowd rallies or the usual biryani with liquor or sarees. It was reported that one of the contestants gifted 10 grams of gold to each family. There were standard rates not just for attending a rally or canvassing for a day but even for wearing the scarf of a party for one day. Some villages that were left out of the cash distribution sat on dharna on the polling day with the placards “No money, no vote”. In these booths, voting finally began, post settlement, at 3 pm and continued till 11 pm. Political grapevine in Telangana puts the ruling party expenditure in Munugode at Rs 400 crore. Forum for Good Governance, an NGO, filed a complaint to the Election Commission alleging a total expenditure of Rs 627 crore in this by-poll.

Munugode has set ‘gold’ standards for election expenditure in Telangana. I am told this time that no candidate is expected to spend less than Rs 100 crore in each assembly segment. Even if this is hyperbole, we are looking at more than Rs 50 crore of spending by each candidate in a general seat. Munugode could be the future of electoral politics in India. At the ground level of electoral competition, we are not looking at a nexus of business and politics anymore. More often than not, politics is a ‘side business. You make your money through mines, exports, educational institutions, and what have you. And then you get into politics – and media – to protect your main business interests.

Is anyone watching? Yes, the Election Commission of India has a whole division dedicated to election expenditure monitoring. There is a fat manual of do’s and don’ts of election expenditure for parties and candidates. There are rules and proforma that require you to file every detail of what you spend in elections, including a separate row for garlands and flowers in the election rally. That is a pain, I can tell you.

There is an army of IRS officers who are stationed as Election Expenditure Observers, each supported by a local team. That’s a lot of expenditure, you can guess. And then there are raiding teams that set up check-posts and examine every passing vehicle to catch any attempt at electoral inducement. That is a lot of public harassment. There is an upper limit of permissible expenditure, Rs 40 lakh per assembly constituency in most states. There are strict deadlines for filing returns. And a threat of disqualification for those who fail to file the returns. A lot of work for chartered accountants, I guess.

There is a catch, though. So far, no elected MLA or MP has been disqualified during their tenure due to false expenditure statements. One MLA was disqualified after her tenure was over. A handful of cases are pending in courts. That’s all. That is the net outcome of the entire charade of election expenditure monitoring.
For the record, all the major candidates in Munugode have duly filed their expenditure returns; the highest one claims an overall expenditure of Rs 34.75 lakh.

I heard the Election Commission’s latest announcement on the Model Code of Conduct, the limit of Rs 40 lakh per constituency for Assembly elections, the appointment of Expenditure Observers and so on. I just smiled. And I wondered if we would not be better off if we did away with this fiction of a ceiling on electoral expenditure. At least we would save on some sarkari expenditure on monitoring of election expenditure.

The fact is that the Election Commission cannot do very much about either the illegitimate ‘white’ or the ‘black’ money in politics. Over the years, all possible legal filters on white money have been removed. While there is a ceiling on how much a candidate can spend, there is no limit whatsoever on how much a political party can spend. The dividing line between the two is, of course, non-existent. The pre-existing limit on corporate political funding has been removed. And the Electoral Bonds have removed whatever remained of transparency in political funding. Unless something can be done about it, it is pointless to ask the ECI to guard an open field.

As for ‘black’ money, it is harder to detect and punish it in politics than it is to curb corruption in public life. In a country with weak institutions, how does one regulate those who make and implement rules? How does one check the growing influence of money in politics when every other domain of our life, from education to religion, is being commercialised? The only real and effective check in politics is the fear of public sanction. The cure for the ills of politics lies in more and better politics.

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Vol 56, No. 22, Nov 26 - Dec 2, 2023