'The EC has set a limit of Rs 70 lakhs for each candidate's expenditure, so the official figures the candidates report with the EC is going to be Rs 70 lakhs at the max, but there is a major loophole in the system.'
'There is no such cap on the spending by the party on elections, on campaigns, so even though the candidate might spend Rs 70 lakhs officially, the amount spent by the party towards the candidate is also huge.'
15 candidates, including Kanhaiya Kumar, the Aam Aatish Party's Atishi, a widow of a farmer who committed suicide and a transgender activist, are raising campaign funds through the crowdsourcing platform, Our Democracy.
Helmed by Anand Mangnale and Bilal Zaidi, Our Democracy aims at bringing clean money into the murky world of campaign funding.
Mangnale has worked on the campaign of Jignesh Mevani, volunteered for Irom Sharmila when she contested the Manipur state election in 2017 and consulted on campaigns of couple of candidates in rural Maharashtra.
Co-founder Bilal Zaidi is a former journalist who has also worked with the Global Campaign Organisation Avaaz and worked on United States Senator Bernie Sanders's campaign.
"If we look at our own country's history, Gandhiji took Rs 1 donations from people for the Congress during the freedom struggle," Anand Mangnale, below, left, tells Rediff.com's Archana Masih in an e-mail interview.
What are your concerns about electoral funding and its impact on Indian democracy?
Electoral funding is totally opaque right now, more so with the electoral bonds introduced by the current regime.
Arun Jaitley said it will bring transparency, but it is totally opposite to it.
The process is not just opaque, but also the government in power knows who is donating how much money to whom, which in a way is an intimidating tactic, that's why we see 95% of the donations through electoral bonds have gone to the ruling BJP.
The huge donations corporates give to political parties in a way dictate policies, which in turn are decided to help them, and not the people.
When corporates have a stake in the government through contributions to political parties, the democracy which is supposed to work for the common man doesn't work.
We need radical transparency and accountability.
The citizens need to know how policy decisions are taken place, and for whose benefits, which is currently hampered by the electoral funding process, because the size of donations of corporates is clearly dictating the policies, and more so, as we have seen in the last 5 years.
How many candidates are using your platform to raise money? Who are they and what parties?
We have around 15 ongoing campaigns for politicians from different political parties.
We have Kanhaiya Kumar from the CPI, Farmers leader Nana Patole, Haryana Congress president Ashok Tanwar from the Congress, Atishi, Dilip Pandey, Raghav Chaddha from Delhi, Dharamvir Gandhi from Patiala, Elvis Gomes from Goa for AAP, S H Bukhari from the BSP, Raju Yadav from the CPI-ML, and Independent candidates such as Vijay Kumar, a friend of Rohith Vemula who is contesting from Hyderabad, Sneha Kale, a transgender activist from Mumbai, Vaishali Yede, a widow of a farmer who committed suicide from Yavatmal who is supported by Independent MLA Bacchu Kadu, and a few others.
We are also in talks for a campaign of Mohammad Salim of the CPI-M from Bengal and others.
Did they approach you? What parties have you reached out to?
When the election season was heating up, we started approaching all the political parties.
Our aim is to bring transparency and accountability in politics, and we feel one of the ways to do it is through increasing the white money in politics.
We have reached out to all the major political parties and leaders we could get hold of.
As the question of electoral funding includes all parties and our aim is to solve the crisis of black, unaccounted money, we had a clear agenda to reach out to everyone.
When people got to know about our initiative, we are also approached by Independent candidates and parties now.
How open are parties to raising funds through crowdsourcing?
Parties are still fiddling with the idea of crowdfunding. I guess most parties other than the Left, traditionally rely on corporate and businessmen funding them.
It's actually strange, because if we look at our own country's history Gandhiji took Rs 1 donations from people for the Congress during the freedom struggle, so it shouldn't come as a surprise.
Newer parties and the Left seem to be more comfortable with the idea of crowdfunding.
It is also to be taken under consideration that it hasn't really been taken up on a large scale level in India.
This is one of the first attempts to reach out to political parties and try and get them on board for crowdfunding.
This way leaders become more accountable to people and have more say in the democratic process, beyond just voting.
How much funds have individual candidates like Atishi and Kanhaiya raised?
Atishi's campaign has raised Rs 46,67,122 and Kanhaiya Rs 64,54,902 as of 12.1 on 4th April.
How does the platform work? What commission do you get?
We have created a system where anyone can create an account with their e-mail id and phone number and create their campaign.
We look into it, verify it and then approve the campaign. We also help people who have issues or problems setting up a campaign.
We help them with creating the pitch, we guide them with things to do, best practices, to spread the campaign.
We take a commission of 5%, which goes into paying the freelancers we hire for helping us with creating creatives, graphics, videos etc.
What is the least amount someone has contributed towards a candidate's campaign?
The least amount starts from Rs 100.
As all the campaigns are ongoing, the contributions keep on varying based on the spread of the campaign, media coverage of the campaign, influencers sharing the campaign and other factors.
How long does it take for a candidate to put his appeal for funds online?
It is a very quick process. If the candidate has a pitch ready, we approve the campaign in a couple of hours tops.
If the candidate needs help in writing the pitch and creating a graphic and all, it would take a couple of more hours.
We have a team of freelancers who help us with preparing the pitch, graphics, so the turn around time is really quick.
Though the EC poll spending limit is Rs 60 lakh, how much money is expected to be spent by candidates in this election?
The EC has set a limit of Rs 70 lakhs for each candidate's expenditure, so the official figures the candidates report with the EC is going to be Rs 70 lakhs at the max, but there is a major loophole in the system.
There is no such cap on the spending by the party on elections, on campaigns, so even though the candidate might spend Rs 70 lakhs officially, the amount spent by the party towards the candidate is also huge.
I guess the amount varies based on how much money the party has and how strong and winnable the candidate is.
We estimate around Rs 80,000 to Rs 90,000 crores will be spent on the 2019 general election in India overall.
How does your platform propose to introduce clean money into the murky funding mechanism of Indian elections?
As mentioned earlier, we are not only approaching political parties and candidates, but also putting out an appeal to the citizens of India asking them to push their leaders to accept what we call the #WhiteMoneyChallenge.
We were ready to stand in long lines fo ATMs after demonetisation to destroy black money, so we as citizens deserve a better political scenario in the country where only white money is used in politics and not black money.
Right now, we are in the midst of one of the largest elections in the world history, so we are focusing on reaching out to and on-boarding as many political leaders, candidates possible.
Post the elections we are going to focus on 'Active Advocacy and Campaigning' for policy, legislative level changes.
We believe in intervention campaigns and advocacy and that will be our platform's focus post the elections, to make sure the next election in India happens on a much fairer and just ground.
Voters themselves are quite happy to get money in lieu of votes, so how can this be tackled?
If you look at it with the voter's perspective, it is the only time when they feel important, they are valued and they take this opportunity to get something, because for the rest of the 5 years, politicians, parties conveniently forget them, because they are busy serving the corporations who have contributed for their political campaign.
So it is a vicious cycle really, where this thing about voters taking money is created by the inaction of the successive governments.
When policy decisions, its implementation, work is done for people, why would they need this money.
So this is a crisis created by our own political system, which can be tackled when the government is held accountable for its actions, and one of the ways to do it is further democratising the process in which transparent electoral funding, crowdfunding plays an important role.
It is a vicious circle because parties give tickets to candidates who have the money and muscle to fund their campaigns.
How can electoral politics find a way out of this?
Yes, over time, we are stuck in this cycle. That's why interventions such as ours are important.
It is really tough and painful at times to convince people, leaders, parties why this is important and that it really can work.
I guess we really made an impact with the campaign of Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani when we did his electoral crowdfunding campaign for the Gujarat assembly election.
His campaign 'Janta Ki Ladhai, Janta Ke Paiso Se', created waves. People from all across the country contributed to his campaign and we were able to prove that it can be done.
I think people need examples, benchmarks in front of them to believe that something like this can happen.
With the increase of activists entering political space and still keeping their integrity and principles intact, we are able to see that change.
This is a slow process and our's is a small yet hopefully a powerful intervention. Also, the work has to be done at different levels.
Crowdfunding for elections, educating people that democracy is not just voting every 5 years, but constantly holding the ones in power accountable, regular public, policy consultations, proactive advocacy campaigns and other things.
A wholesome approach including all these things is a pretty good start towards tackling the problem and finding a way for our democracy to flourish.
What have been your personal learnings in this journey, especially while working with Prashant Kishor?
I joined IPAC (Indian Political Action Committee) to understand how electoral campaigns are managed and done at a larger level.
My interest was to use a similar model it for social change campaigns.
I had done consulting on media and strategy for political campaigns earlier, so my interest was to try and do a social campaign around drugs in Punjab, which was plaguing Punjab.
Prashant Kishor's IPAC's PR is that they invoke transparency and accountability and it is a cross party advocacy company, but they don't do anything of that sorts.
If anything, they have massively increased the costs of elections in India with the kind of work they do.
I was disheartened and also unable to push for an anti-drugs campaign along with the political campaigns IPAC was doing.
I left and self published a book about the drug issue in Punjab and a campaign which I had designed to start tackling the drug issue named 'The Drugged State of Punjab'.
So for me frankly, IPAC is a glorified event management company, which does things at a huge scale, that's about it.