Muscled with dosh from India Inc, poll industry yields richest dividends in the game
Surviving in politics without black money is like Dionysius living without wine. As the electoral glove game of 2014 gets dirty and malodorous, not a single player involved is extemporising on cleansing electoral economics. Last week, when a portal carried a sting operation on some Aam Aadmi Party candidates, the outfit smelt political vengeance. Stung by AAP’s growing acceptability, its opponents struck back and accused it of double standards by using unaccounted money. In the sadistic political slanging match between parties, the role of money power in elections became toast. From PM Manmohan Singh to aspiring PM Narendra Modi, not one leader spoke about bringing financial transparency into election funding. Even the vociferous and sanctimonious Election Commission achieved Zen by the monotonous repetition of its decade-old representations to the government. An analysis of over 100 speeches made by the PM, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Modi and the CMs of election-bound states generates revealing revelations. The use of bad money coming from ugly sources wasn’t an issue. All parties are competing with one another in a decadent display of money power with choreographed rallies and fancy stages. According to an estimate by a corporate, Croesus, who ponies up poll funds to all leading parties, it would cost candidates in the coming state elections over Rs. 2,000 crore to fight for the 650 Assembly seats. While the upper spending limit set by EC for an Assembly election is just Rs. 35 lakh per candidate, it would cost each aspirant at least Rs. 1 lakh a day to cover his constituency during a month-long campaign. If the details of collections given to EC are any indication, it’s a record of parties being Shylockian with the truth. Together, all candidates spend over Rs. 25,000 crore every five years to win or lose. With the political-business nexus becoming stronger and blatantly visible, all talk of transparency in election spending is perceived as naff.
Since most parties have refused to come under the RTI Act, it is clear that they have more to hide than to reveal about the dubious sources of their funds. Not a single CM has made a feeble attempt to promise that his or her party would accept political donations only by cheque. Even the BJP, which 20 years ago was the first party to pass a resolution refusing to accept donations in cash, was the first to forget and violate its own resolve. Surprisingly, all political outfits become animadvert on the use of brobdingnagian amounts of money in politics only after they have won or lost an election. One doesn’t have to go far to seek the reasons for their sinister silence on finances. Even though India’s geographical boundaries remain unchanged since Independence, electoral expenses have risen manifold. Earlier, senior leaders, including CMs and officebearers, would cover the country by road and would rarely use flying machines to reach remote forested areas. Today, even a petty leader-come-yesterday takes pride in commandeering a helicopter or a chartered plane for election campaigns. Some of the so-called national leaders have refused to campaign because they were not allowed to jet set to various states in luxury. According to a civil aviation contractor, over 100 helicopters and small jet planes have been pressed into service in all the five election-bound states. The majority of the aircraft are owned by big business houses, which have acquired their flying toys by floating aviation companies. In fact, some leaders have made it a condition that they would not campaign unless they are provided an eight-seater twin-engine jet complete with five-star catering. Now the leaders are dictating terms to the parties. They decide their campaign schedule in such a way that they can return to their urban playgrounds for late night social rendezvous. They also seek caravans of luxury sedans for local poll peregrinations. A decade ago, our earthy leaders would draft publicity campaigns with catchy slogans, posters and graffiti. Now each party hires a top-end ad agency whose slogan writers are given the task to market the leaders who sign the contracts. Even district-level officers are demanding Innovas, Scorpios and Tata Safaris with unlimited gas and grub money before they even step out of their houses.
The complexion of the Indian election campaign is becoming more colourful and exhibitionistic than ever. It is not the crowd or quality of speeches that make an impact on voters. Leaders have convinced themselves that only the feel and look of the stage and the campaigner’s body language would them get them eyeballs and votes. With over 400 TV channels beaming news 24x7, all major parties have devised strategies to splurge on expensive media space to reach the maximum number of people. Both national parties are fully exploiting the shrinking top lines of news organisations, which are unable to spend massively on live coverage. Moreover, parties are hiring state-of-the-art technology along with experts to dictate the live coverage of their rallies. According to media circles, both the Congress and BJP have engaged IT companies to provide dedicated feeds to all TV companies so that the channels could save money. No wonder, viewers are being fed similar images rallies with the focus on the leaders and selected crowded spots. These cost a minimum of over Rs. 1 crore per rally, since the effort requires over a dozen cameras and heavy techquipment.
It is not only the crony capitalists who have benefited from the pace of economic reforms. It is the money, which they have generated through means fair and foul that has changed the way India engages in the battle of ballots. Hired marketers have replaced barefoot campaigners as ideological messengers. Muscled with dosh from India Inc, the election industry yields the richest dividends in the political game played in the shadows of the dark side of India’s economy.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla