NATIONAL

Fighting elections: the unofficial cost

A. Saye Sekhar

You could build a 1,000-km, six-lane road with the money (Rs. 3,600 crore) that is being spent by the three major political parties in Andhra Pradesh where elections are being held simultaneously for the Lok Sabha and the State Assembly. Sounds incredible, yet the facts back it up. The Election Commission has pegged the amount that could be spent in an Assembly constituency at Rs. 15 lakh; it is Rs. 25 lakh for a Lok Sabha seat. As the Commission is supposed to track the expenses of each candidate, the limits are scrupulously followed — but only in the account books. The ground reality is different, and the recession matters little when it comes to these elections.

Once the Commission sounds the election bell, the choir of currency rings in the ears of all the stakeholders — the organisers, the contestants and the voters themselves — as every payment is made only in cash. No credit, and no credit cards. “If you don’t have a minimum of Rs. 2 crore cash on hand, there is no use contesting an Assembly election,” said a former president of the Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee. “Election expenditure began spiralling since 1985 when the Telugu Desam Party courted a mid-term poll. It has virtually doubled with every election, no matter how much money one has,” said a five-time MLA.

Which item constitutes the major chunk of election expenditure? Many politicians agree that it is the purchase of votes. Typically, there are 1.5 lakh to 2.25 lakh voters in an Assembly constituency, of whom at least 30 per cent do not vote.

Among the remaining voters, candidates seek to purchase around 75,000. Each vote costs between Rs. 200 and Rs. 500. This time it is likely to go up to Rs. 1,000 in some constituencies. Inclusive of expenditure on liquor, this accounts for 65 to 70 per cent of the total.

The cash outflow from a determined Assembly candidate ranges between Rs. 2 crore and Rs. 6 crore, depending on the level of affluence in the constituency and the contestant’s own wealth. If the voters perceive that the candidate is wealthy, the expectations are high, too. However, these are lower if the candidate is known to be austere. Usually, the election spend in the reserved constituencies and those contested by members of the minority communities is relatively less than the others at Rs. 1 crore to Rs.2 crore.

In the case of a Lok Sabha candidate, the expenditure may range from Rs. 10 crore to Rs. 15 crore when elections are held simultaneously to Parliament and the Assembly. The contestant will have to cough up more in a prosperous region. Of course, parties have almost forgotten the arithmetic for a standalone election as Andhra Pradesh has only seen simultaneous polls for Assembly and Lok Sabha since 1999.

“In a simultaneous election, a Lok Sabha candidate’s popularity is not the only criterion for winning. He has to be rich as well and must carry along all the party candidates in the seven Assembly segments. The MLA candidate must be a popular person,” said Kodela Sivaprasada Rao, a former Minister. The Lok Sabha contestant allots 70 per cent of the election expenditure to the Assembly candidates and retains only 30 per cent of the budget to run his or her own show.

The major heads of poll spending are: engaging at least 2,000 active men for campaigning, poll management and counting; hiring or purchasing, and maintaining, vehicles; organising publicity material; opening village-level offices; preparing and distributing voter slips; fetching electors to polling stations; getting star speakers and picking up the tab for their travel, lodging and boarding; and other miscellaneous expenditure.

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