2019 Lok Sabha elections could be world’s most expensive, says US expert

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New Delhi | Published: February 22, 2019 4:49:00 PM

While the political corridors see a power shift every five years, the perpetual cash flow to and from the political parties is no secret.

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With a population of over 1.3 billion people – and counting – India is the world’s largest democracy. As India heads towards the crucial 2019 lok sabha elections, political parties have upped their game. Be it the packed rallies, outrageous press conferences, populists aggressive stances, pre-poll alliances or the exchange of barbs, it is open season for the political class.

While the political corridors see a power shift every five years, the perpetual cash flow to and from the political parties is no secret.

“If the 2014 Lok Sabha elections cost an estimated USD 5 billion, there is little doubt the 2019 election will easily surpass that — making India’s elections the world’s most expensive,” a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank told PTI.

And Vaishnav has said just that in his piece he wrote for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s op-ed as well.

Quoting researchers from the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) in his report which estimated the cost of the 2009 general election to be $2 billion whereas 2014 saw the expense of $5 billion, Vaishnav argues that the cost may double this year.

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“It is not inconceivable that overall expenditure will double again this year. For comparison’s sake, the combined 2015-16 United States presidential and congressional elections had a price tag of $11.1 billion, according to U.S. federal regulators,” he adds.

Political views notwithstanding, it can be unanimously said funding in elections is opaque and it can also be safely assumed that no one really knows how and how much donations a political party receives in a financial cycle. There’s no provision to find out all the sources of political funding.

He writes in his op-ed, “Although political parties benefit from an exemption on income tax, their accounts are not subject to any genuine scrutiny. The best one can say is that parties deign to submit a perfunctory annual statement of accounts – which is signed off by a handpicked auditor of their choosing – to the Election Commission. And although candidates are required to disclose the minutiae of their campaign spending, their disclosures do not pass the smell test.”

The Narendra Modi government in 2018 budget presentation announced an election finance reform in a bid to clean the murky donation boxes for the political funding – ‘electoral bonds’ which allow associations, corporations, and individuals to donate funds to a political party through the formal banking system.

This, and the associated changes to campaign finance law, have essentially legitimized the anonymity of election funding, making it less transparent, he argues. While the anonymous slash on cash donations may have come down from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000 and it may mean more entries, this provision becomes toothless without a cap on the amount of money collected anonymously through cash, Vaishnav says.

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