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AAP's campaign costs leave parties no justification for graft

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
January 13, 2014 16:30 IST
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Aam Aadmi PartyIt is not yet clear how many Lok Sabha constituencies would see Aam Aadmi Party’s candidates in the fray. If those seats are fought and won the way the 28 assembly seats were in Delhi, it can end the usual excuse for corruption: high election costs, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Amid the euphoria of an outlier forming a government in Delhi, it trimming the trappings of power and all that, the country may be losing sight of a very important message. It is that elections can be fought and won without pouring out oodles of cash. If the voters are approached with sincerity, the votes arrive in the ballot box, almost for free.

So far, each election has seen candidates’ election expenses rising, beating the inflation rate. Competitive out-spending, ending in overspending is a factor. Electoral insecurities and increasing access to bigger sums of money by graft because politics is business and helps oil others’ businesses has stoked this trend which has no direct voter-politicians connect.

It is not yet clear how many Lok Sabha constituencies would see Aam Aadmi Party’s candidates in the fray. The estimates and projections are available -- contest in around 300 and victories in about 50. If those seats are fought and won the way the 28 assembly seats were in Delhi, it can end the usual excuse for corruption: high election costs.

The geographies would be larger but the methods have to be the same as in Delhi because it worked with persistent voter contact by door to door visits and mohalla-level meetings addressed by no bigger leaders than from its own bunch, like Kumar Viswas, for instance. It had no big leaders for mammoth meetings, like the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party usually have.

The AAP had its low-cost budget right, and stopped seeking funds for the Delhi polls when it reached Rs 20 crore. The war chest was would have been split two ways: one for the party’s general expenses across the seats, and the other for each candidate to spend on the campaign within the constituency. The first is not added to the candidates tote.

The AAP campaign design pared costs to the bone, something amazing because established politicians crib that Rs 16 lakh for an assembly seat and Rs 40 lakh for Lok Sabha was grossly in adequate. A contest for a municipal ward costs as much or more.

The low-cost campaign model was in full display, thanks to news television’s near-saturation coverage. Perhaps that was also an enabler of the cheaper campaign. Delhi is compact city with 70 assembly seats which made it possible for the candidates to move around at least cost. The larger parliamentary seats would make it difficult with bigger logistic requirements.

If AAP stuck to this model for the Lok Sabha elections, it could then emerge as a sustainable model. Use of black money with attendant post-poll compulsions of the politicians, to render favours which in turn, given the greed, generally involve another round of money exchanges, would be obviated. Once in power, the meekest turn into arrogant, money-grabbing politicians.

The voter enthusiasm for AAP is visible, a weighty finding in a survey by a newspaper indicating that nearly half of those polled are willing to “take the time out and campaign for AAP” in the Lok Sabha elections. That should give the established political class a scare for it is total participation -- not just voting as a duty but pushing a cause as well. That is a cost-cutter.

It is a major mindset makeover of the voter. If that inclination translated into action, AAP would find it easier to cope with the larger constituencies. That would almost be equivalent in each constituency to the 1.5 lakh volunteers who poured into Delhi from across the country to help. They, with their Delhi experience, would be of immense use to AAP’s Lok Sabha nominees.

Unlike Delhi, where the time before the announcement of the polls the AAP had its candidates decided, and campaign commenced, that edge for the ambitious foray is missing now. The constituency sizes are bigger and so are the voters’ lists. Seats for contests are yet to be identified. The surge of pubic appreciation of AAP could neutralise the drawback.

Unlike the urban seats, the rural constituencies are geographically extensive. The voter-politician links are said to be stronger because of the several institutions, like cooperatives, they command, control access to the government agencies as a patronage. That in itself should ease the AAP’s ability to win over the voters but castes and economics could thwart it. In urban areas those considerations are minimal.

Other politicians run up their costs. They buy votes. The rallies where audiences are fetched is a major expense which are shared across a party’s top hierarchy comprising ministers, legislators, and through them, the contractors, businessmen and others who had or stand to benefit by the patronage. People have to be carted to the meetings. The AAP did not have to use that mode.

However, given the rapid wealth accumulation and how they wallow in it once elected, indicates free and copious flow of only black money. Some of it is saved and retained by the candidates. There are even losers who retain much of the cash, implying they had collected far more than was needed for a single campaign.

Their funders seldom ask for accounts but seek favours. To the Election Commission, it is understated, a point not denied by the commission. It is not uncommon to hear MLAs and MPs claiming expenses below the Rs 16 lakh limit for the assembly and Rs 40 lakh for Lok Sabha seats with doctored returns. In private, most crib about the crores spent and how no elections can be fought without deep pockets.

Election campaigns are like event managements without an assurance to the spender of the bang for the buck. The spending is competitive, trying to insure oneself against even the rumoured outlays of the rival. ‘Political worker’ is a concept long dead since each of those who assist a candidate, needs something in return: a prospective patronage, and more likely tie-up, for any opportunity that could later arise.

A majority of so-called ‘party workers ‘actually are middle men -- in Hindi, mukaddam -- and the rest are herded by various inducements to attend a rally, or vote. I know of politicians who pay the daily wage hopefuls for a day’s work to carry banners or party flags for them. Nothing comes free, unless, it seems, AAP is campaigning in Delhi which was almost free compared to what others spend.

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Mahesh Vijapurkar