Indian political parties spent $8 billion on this year’s elections—nearly half was by the BJP

Expensive democracy.
Expensive democracy.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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Elections in the world’s largest democracy are turning out to be a money guzzler.

Political parties and candidates spent nearly Rs60,000 crore (around $8.65 billion) in India’s recently-concluded general election, making it twice as expensive as the one in 2014, according to a recent report by the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Media Studies (CMS).

The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the biggest spender, accounting for 45-50% of the overall expenditure, compared with the principal opposition Indian National Congress’ 15-20%, CMS’s report, which was based on field analysis, said.

Poll expenses in India’s national elections have been spiralling over the years as parties spend generously on publicity, logistics, and even distributing cash for votes.

“Going by the current spending figures, expenditure in the next 2024 general election could cross Rs1 lakh crore,” said N Bhaskara Rao, chairman, CMS. “The mother of all corruption lies in spiraling election expenditure. If we are not able to address this, we can’t check corruption,” added Rao.

Favourable policies

The higher expenditure in the 2019 general election has a lot to do with India’s political funding policies becoming more liberal, claims CMS.

The introduction of electoral bonds in 2017, for instance, facilitates unlimited, anonymous contributions from corporates to political parties. Earlier, a company’s donation to political funding was capped at 7.5% of its average profit in the previous three years. The firm also had to disclose the amount donated and state which political party was the beneficiary.

Another policy change was the 2018 amendment to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, which exempts foreign funds received by political parties from scrutiny.

The easy money resulted in an average expenditure of Rs100 crore per constituency in the recent general election, revealed the CMS report. This estimate far exceeds the election commission of India’s stipulated cap of Rs50-70 lakh per candidate. 

A higher share of the poll expenses is now also being borne personally by the candidate, given the growing number of millionaires contesting elections. In some constituencies, individual candidates spent more than Rs40 crore.

Some of this expenditure was in the form of cash-for-votes. Voters were offered Rs100 to Rs1,500 in many places. “The amount distributed to voters in each constituency was decided on the basis of how keenly the election was being fought,” according to CMS.

However, freebies came in other forms, too. “Pilgrimage and foreign trips were offered to select groups of voters. This was a new way for canvassing and seeking community votes,” the think tank said.