NEW DELHI (TIP): Elections, it is said, are about spending big. This despite repeated poll panel efforts to curb candidate expenses. The EC rule book is clear: Each candidate is entitled to spend a maximum of Rs 70 lakh and it is mandatory for the nominee to file daily expenses. On the ground, a different story plays out and contestants find ways to beat the book. Politicians begin spending the day their names surface as a potential candidate.
Many engage image consultants to get their projection right and build a “winnability” perception. After the contestant bags a ticket his election expenses start the day he files nomination. The EC requires candidates to open separate accounts only for their poll expense, and if that weren’t bother enough, to account for day-to-day expenses. For LS polls, a general category nominee must pay a Rs 25,000-security deposit.
The meter starts ticking. “We fix heads under which we need to spend,” Vishwas Sarang, campaign manager for a BJP LS candidate in MP says. Typically these include daily campaign expenditure, spend on banners, and publicity material and, crucially, booth management on polling day. “Bhopal alone has 1,600 polling booths. To staff them adequately, we need manpower and resources,” Sarang says. But even the best of plans spin out of control as campaigning picks up. “It’s like budgeting for a wedding, things usually go wrong.
There are so many imponderables,” campaign manager for a senior politician says. MP BJP leader Mahendra Singh Chouhan concedes: “It’s very difficult to earmark a particular percentage of Rs 70 lakh under a specific category. Expenses fluctuate.” A rival’s ability to spend and his/her visibility quotient dictate expenses. “Truth is if the rival is running a low-steam campaign, you also cut back on expense. But if the opponent is extravagant, you’re left with no option,” Chouhan says.
Former MP from Chhattisgarh Chandrashekhar Sahu says travel and promotional material are major components of total expenses. But in practice, much is not accounted for. “Party workers need cars, fuel and food. These account for a lot of money, most of the spending under these heads don’t go into the books,” a Congressman says. So, how much does the candidate really disclose? Here are some startling figures to show how they dodge the watchdog body.
In the 2011 Bengal assembly polls, candidate expense statements filed to EC showed three elected nominees held no public meetings, 163 of the 217 MLAs chose to simply ignore print and electronic media advertisement costs, 53 said they never paid a paisa to their campaign workers, even for food. Forget the Rs 70 lakh limit, truth is most contestants spend upwards of Rs 10 crore each.
A Tamil Nadu politician concedes: “By conservative estimates, a minimum of Rs 2.5 crore is a must to contest. On average there are 1,300 booths per constituency. I pay at least Rs 15,000 per booth (each booth as four agents) to ensure it’s well covered and my men are everywhere ensuring there’s no rigging — that alone works out to about Rs 2 crore. Over and above that, printing of pamphlets, flex boards cost roughly Rs 20 lakh. Fuel expenses and vehicle rentals notch up another Rs 20 lakh, ad campaigns an additional Rs 15 lakh to Rs 20 lakh.” Booth management is one of the biggest headaches and a big cost centre, politicians in Chhattisgarh agree.
This expense can’t be shown in the accounts that are forwarded to EC else the prescribed spending limits would be breached by miles. So, it has to be adjusted or dressed up. “While filing returns, we hardly ever show the money spent on polling booth agents. While we disclose an expenditure of Rs 4 lakh to Rs 5 lakh per public meeting addressed by a senior leader, the actual expense could be well over Rs 2 crore to Rs 3 crore,” an election manager in MP says.
Political observers in Karnataka claim each Narendra Modi rally in that state could have cost close to Rs 1.5 crore, all expenses are put together. You need sacks of liquid cash to bring crowds to rallies. “The current practice in TN is to pay those attending Rs 500 to Rs 750 per head,” a campaign manager informs. In Maharashtra, the rent-a-crowd rate in 2009 was Rs 100 per person. The going rate in the state now has shot up to Rs 300 and more.
The person coming for the meeting expects to be fed a decent meal. These expenses are hidden and none of it goes into the accounts. All major parties concede that planning a senior leader’s logistics for a big election rally can send expenses through the roof. The national leader is a star campaigner. His hotel arrangements have to be made, transportation taken care of and security arranged.
These are huge costs. The heat adds to the problem. Parties spend big on pandals and safe drinking water. Nobody will come if they’re made to sit in the open under the scorching sun.