INDIA: Elections Could be the Costliest Ever

AUSTIN SZABO WRITES – The world’s largest democracy may finally be set to host the world’s most expensive elections.

In the months leading to India’s April-May congressional election, the competing Congress and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, or the People’s Party) will spend upwards of $5 billion on TV, print, radio, and internet advertisements aimed at the estimated 814 million eligible voters. More than triple the expenditure of the 2009 election, the total will grow until the last stage of the election in May. This unprecedented spending fest and series of high profile events will approach or even surpass the $7 billion spent in the United States during the 2012 election, which currently holds the record.

The 2014 election will be costly enough to briefly boost India’s economy, according to the Times of India. But it won’t last long. India is creaking under the weight of corrupt, bureaucratic institutions and the sheer size of its population. In an election focused on poverty and corruption, issues that spawned the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party), it is ironic but fitting for it to be the most excessively funded in Indian history.

While many see this rise in spending as appropriate to reach India’s massive population, the causes for this surge in spending are more American in character. The first is an extended election season. While it’s typical for Americans to discuss elections years before they occur,  early election spending in India is unprecedented.

Also unheard of is the practice of blanket spending: running ads even in weak areas for one’s party. “They started much before, and they are also focusing on states where they are traditionally not strong. They are leaving no area untouched,” says Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies. Another American feature of this campaign is the opacity of campaign finance law, allowing both major parties to outspend smaller contenders with massive war chests with ambiguous origins.

The head of the AAP,  Arvind Kejriwal, hopes to earn support for his new party by criticizing Narendra Modi’s  support from big businesses. He says that Modi’s plan for economic growth only benefits the large corporations that allegedly bankroll his party’s campaigns. These accusations have never seemed as likely as they are now, with both Congress and BJP wielding billions of dollars, using external groups to sidestep complicated campaign finance laws. These accusations mirror the accusations levied against American political action committees (PACs) that pushed the bill for the 2012 election. 

This $5 billion election price tag is both a sign of a maturing political system from the world’s largest democracy and a sign of potential misuse of funds, something various third parties, including the AAP, are campaigning against. If India’s electoral system should continue to be a model of stability for the developing world, India’s next government must enforce the anti-graft bill passed late last year and reform campaign finance rules by closing various existing loopholes.

Indian society, despite its many flaws, is an all too rare example of a somewhat stable democracy in Asia. Hopefully, it is not weakened by the undue influence of money.

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