You can organise a Salman Khan meeting for Rs. 4,300 going by Ashok Chavan's poll expenditure account.

Deprived of chief ministership, Mr. Ashok Chavan has other problems to contend with near at hand. Soon after the October 2009 assembly elections in Maharashtra, Mr. Chavan was embroiled in the ‘paid news' scandal (The Hindu, November 30, 2009). That was about dozens of full pages of ‘news' eulogising the Chief Minister which appeared in major dailies during the poll campaign. Hearings are still on in the Election Commission of India (ECI) on a notice issued to him on the subject. The last one was held as recently as October 29. Had these multiple pages featuring Mr. Chavan been marked as advertisements, they would have cost crores of rupees and been way above the election expenditure limit of Rs. 10 lakh. Mr. Chavan's poll expenditure account states he spent less than Rs. 7 lakh on his entire campaign and a mere Rs. 5,379 on newspaper advertisements. But there have been developments since then, which throw new light on last year's election costs.

Rally expenses

Only last month, Maharashtra handed the Congress at the Centre another embarrassment. The television channel Star Majha aired clips of a conversation between MPCC President Manikrao Thakre and a former State minister. This got recorded after a press conference had concluded and the speakers did not realise that the channel's mike was still on. The channel reported that every minister in the state had been asked to raise Rs. 10 lakh each for Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's rally in Wardha on October 15 this year. Mr. Ashok Chavan himself, so the conversation went, had apparently raised Rs. 2 crore for the rally. The spending of crores of rupees on a public meeting held close to Mahatma Gandhi's ashram in Sewagram — a symbol of simple living — drew a lot of flak.

The claimed expenditure on the rally, though, is curious. The Sewagram event, going by the recorded conversation of the Congress leaders, cost between Rs. 3 and Rs. 5 crores. In comparison, the 2009 election rallies cost next to nothing. Mr. Chavan's election expenditure account of 2009 — and those of his fellow MLAs from Nanded district — tell us that Mrs. Gandhi's election rally in Chavan's home base on October 6 last year cost a mere Rs. 7.44 lakh. That is, less than 2.5 per cent of what this year's Sewagram rally cost. Even that relatively small sum was shared by six Congress candidates.

No less curious, an election meeting in Mr. Chavan's Bhokar constituency in Nanded around the same time, with Bollywood icon Salman Khan as its star attraction, cost almost nothing. According to Mr. Chavan's election expenditure account, Mr. Khan's first meeting in the then Chief Minister's constituency, cost Rs. 4,440. The second even less, Rs. 4,300. In each case, over a third of this expense, Rs. 1,500, was spent on just the “loud speaker” or public address system. Three days after these entries were made in Mr. Chavan's account, a further item was added: “rent of the meeting place” — Rs. 500.

Nanded (and Bhokar in particular) seem to defy rising prices elsewhere. The pandal top cost just Rs. 200. The setting up of the stage itself, in the first meeting, took no more than Rs. 1,000. And the cloth covering the stage was rented for only Rs. 40. Sofas for the meeting were hired for a mere Rs. 200.

The total cost of all of Salman Khan's meetings and “roadshow” in three constituencies together came to less than Rs. 20,000. This means, all Mr. Khan's events there cost less than three per cent of what Mrs. Gandhi's election rally the same week did. And less than 0.05 per cent of what this October's Sewagram rally cost. That is, if we go by the accounts of three Congress candidates Mr. Ashok Chavan, Mr. D.P. Sawant and Mr. Om Prakash Pokharna. The Hindu has a copy of each of their election accounts. Mr. Khan's meetings and roadshow in the district were also well publicised in newspaper frontpage reports and in advertisements in Nanded. However, some of these ads taken out in the district dailies do not figure in the election accounts of these candidates. The accounts, however, do helpfully mention that Mr. Khan charged no fee or honorarium.

They also account, jointly, for a transportation cost of close to Rs. 1 lakh for the star. That is, for meetings that cost less than Rs. 20,000 totally. This sum was divided equally amongst those three candidates. Mr. Ashok Chavan's poll account, for instance, records a travel expenditure of Rs. 33,000 in connection with Mr. Khan's October 10 meeting. The two other Congress candidates Mr. Sawant and Mr. Pokharna also record almost identical amounts for the same reason. An RTI filed by Nanded journalist Anand S. Kulkarni of Nanded drew the information that Mr. Khan flew into Nanded for the campaign in a private aircraft on October 10, 2009. Which likely accounts for the cost. There were no regular flights of commercial airlines operating that day at Nanded's small airport.

Difference in campaigns

There was a further significant difference between Mrs. Gandhi's campaign and that of Mr. Khan. Mrs. Gandhi is the No. 1 campaigner of the Congress and the expenses on her meetings could be legitimately borne by her party. A national party can submit up to 40 names to the Election Commission (a State-level party, 20 names) of people who will be star campaigners for it. That is, a list of top leaders who would campaign for the party during the particular election. Most of the expenses of these leaders would be borne by the party and not added to the accounts of the individual candidates whose constituencies they visit. Mr. Salman Khan's name does not figure in the list of 40 campaigners submitted by the Congress. A copy of the official list is with The Hindu. However, a senior officer involved in the conduct of those elections told The Hindu: “It sometimes happens that celebrities are shown as ‘accompanying' one of the star campaigners on the list. So then their expenses would not be fully recorded. Indeed, a few non-entities are placed on the star list just to enable this.”

These amazingly low costs have received scant attention. And pose a challenge to an Election Commission keen on cleaning up the game. However, the advertisements that are not accounted for, are part of the complaint and hearings underway at the Election Commission of India. The ECI's own instructions of March 2007 to chief electoral officers on such advertisements demand a full accounting. The next ECI hearing in the ‘paid news' case is on November 12. Mr. Chavan's troubles may continue.