Electoral Campaigns– Why So Expensive?

Politically antagonistic campaigning, electoral promises, printing of campaigning materials, door to door campaigning, scathing speeches, jeeping and rallying, even demarcation of vote banks, all characterise elections in the world’s largest democracy, with its multi-party system. New methods are in use too, such as the use of social media, digital advertising and a pompous use of helicopters, complemented with the distribution of freebies such as liquor, blankets, and cash.

All these things are done so intensively that elections in India have become one of the world’s most expensive elections. The 16th Lok Sabha elections were the most expensive in the history of Indian democracy, with a total expenditure of more than three thousand crores– the impending 2019 Lok Sabha elections are expected to break this record.

Acknowledging a proposition by the Election Commission, the Parliament further increased the expenditure limits for parliamentary elections to Rs. 70 lakhs for bigger states and Rs. 54 lakhs for smaller states. This turn of events gives rise to several pressing questions: Were these opportunistic limits welcomed by political parties just to spend more of the people in order gain more favour from the people? Does this mean that greater money power will win? What about independent candidates who may lack such power?

While the expenditure of Lok Sabha elections is incurred by the Government of India, political parties makes heavy use of their private purses for campaigning and similar tasks. For instance, the ruling party at the centre incurred elections expenses of over seven hundred crores in the 2014 general elections.

But where does this money come from, and who funds the political parties? The sources of income may be transparent voluntary contributions, interest from banks, fee and subscriptions, sale of coupons, memberships, and so on, that vary from party to party. The problem arises when donors remain anonymous– on one hand, the Election Commission and the Income Tax department remain in the dark due to unavailability of the details of the  donors, while on the other, amendments of existing laws have made it simpler for parties to accept foreign donations. Furthermore, there is neither an eligibility criteria for the donors to be able to donate, nor a cap on the amount a political party can accept.

According to the India Today, the share of corporate contributions in the total funds declared by political parties between 2012 and 2016 was as high as eighty-nine percent. This was also accompanied by channelization and utilisation of black money in politics. This may lead to corporate control of politics in India and enactment of policies favorable to the corporates. In fact, in the last few years commercial favouritism by the government has been questioned repeatedly: should this be seen as an evidence?

There are no restrictions as to the quantum of funds received by a political party; anonymous donations below Rs. 20,000 are allowed, and foreign contributions that may bring external influence on domestic politics and strategic policies are not restricted. And thus, obscure donations and their donors pose a great challenge before our democracy. Furthermore, there is a delay in submission of audited reports by political parties to the Election Commission, which highlights the unwillingness of our politicians to ensure transparency and accountability.

The 255th Report of the Law Commission on electoral reforms cautioned that unregulated or under-regulated election financing could lead to “lobbying and capture, where a sort of quid pro quo transpires between big donors and political parties/candidates”. Here, only the government’s endeavours can prevent the strengthening of the existing politician-businessmen nexus and prevent elections from becoming an unnecessarily expensive commercial gimmick.

Our country has been a good borrower of various practices and values– to this end the US could help us again. The US electoral campaign finance laws regulate the amount of money political parties or candidates may receive from individuals or organisations, while defining the nature of contributions and who is eligible to make such contributions. State funding, direct or indirect, could help to an extent too. However, lack of political commitment remains incurable, and a major hindrance to a level playing field for all electoral candidates.

Picture Credits : www.aljazeera.com



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