(The News, April 26, 2014)

by Praful Bidwai

Two weeks ago, many public-spirited Indians complimented the country’s Election Commission for banning public campaigning by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Uttar Pradesh chief election manager Amit Shah, and the Samajwadi Party’s fiery Azam Khan, both of whom spoke provocatively for or against specific religious groups.

This was seen as legally well-founded, even-handed, exemplary in punishing/deterring the use of communal means, and encouraging the conduct of elections in a free and fair manner.

Less than a week later, the EC lifted the prohibition on Shah – because he claimed that his call for political “revenge” against Muslims wasn’t intended to “violate the election code of conduct”, and offered the vague assurance that he wouldn’t use “abusive or derogatory language” in future.

The “revenge” that Shah bloodthirstily demanded was for the imagined “insult” to Jat Hindus during the violence six months ago in western UP’s Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts, reportedly provoked by the BJP to undermine the region’s decades-long Hindu-Muslim amity and political cooperation. The victims were overwhelmingly Muslim, so the “insult” could only have meant resistance on their part to subjugation.

The EC didn’t lift the ban on Khan – although his own questionable speech was partly a reaction to Shah – because he didn’t promise better conduct. The message this sent was that deviousness and hypocrisy pays: Shah managed to control damage to the BJP’s legitimacy by proclaiming that his intentions were honourable. But the real damage, in using communalism for electoral gains, had been done.

Shah is the BJP’s second most important leader after Narendra Modi, and his hatchet-man from even before the 2002 butchery. He’s charged with extortion and ordering three ‘fake encounter’ killings in Gujarat, and was long exiled from there by the Supreme Court to prevent interference with investigation. Shah, out on bail, is adept at gaming the system, having held 10 or more portfolios simultaneously under Modi during 12 years which saw 32 police officers jailed for murder.

Within two days of the EC letting Shah off, the BJP’s Nawada (Bihar) candidate Giriraj Singh unleashed a hysterical tirade demonising Modi’s opponents as Pakistani agents who should be exiled. Although the BJP’s national leadership has distanced itself from his remarks, Singh has refused to retract them. The Congress and Janata Dal (United) have moved the EC against him. Whether it acts firmly by disqualifying him from the election, or lets him off lightly like Shah, remains unclear.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad president Pravin Togadia, taking a cue from these episodes, delivered a hate speech in Bhavnagar (Gujarat) on April 19 against Muslims for buying properties in “Hindu areas”.

BJP leaders, no longer confident of victory, are desperately trying to polarise people along Hindu-Muslim lines to win votes. The EC would fail in its duty if it allows the election climate to be further vitiated by crass appeals to communalism, followed by hollow or ineffectual apologies.

The EC would be equally at fault in not enforcing its rules, which limit the expenditure by an individual Lok Sabha candidate to Rs 70 lakhs for the largest constituencies. This is being flagrantly violated by numerous political parties. It’s wrong in the first place to set limits on individual candidates alone – when parties are the critical actors in the electoral system.

Parties spend huge amounts on everything from hiring helicopters and airplanes, organising massive rallies, providing food and drink, and paying cadres, to producing campaign merchandise (including posters, caps, T-shirts, masks, photos, etc), and buying expensive advertising space. They only account for a minuscule part of this.

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, which has done outstanding work in documenting unethical electoral practices, candidates’ criminal records and financial assets, parties receive up to three-fourths of their campaign funds from anonymous sources: only donations above Rs20,000 need to be disclosed. India is one of the world’s few countries which allows anonymous donations. Indian scholars have pointed to the widespread practice of parties receiving corporate funds, some “round-tripped” from abroad.

The Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies estimates that Rs30,000 crores will be spent on the current elections, mostly by parties – a three-fold rise over 2009. This exceeds India’s primary education allocation (Rs27,000 crores), and is only slightly lower than the Rs42,000-crore 2012 US presidential-campaign spending. This is ethically repugnant.

Even if we discount the CMS estimate, the advertising-public relations industry calculates that Indian parties have an elections advertising budget totalling Rs8-10,000 crores, as reported in many financial papers. The BJP alone, the chosen party of Big Business, has a Rs5,000-crore ad budget, probably four times higher than the Congress’.

This sounds astronomical, but isn’t. Each of the 15,000 urban full-colour Modi hoardings the BJP is putting up for up to three months costs Rs2-3 lakhs per month in cheaper locations, and Rs20 lakhs at prime sites, totalling an expense of Rs2,500 crores. (www.hindustantimes.com/elections2014/state-of-the-states/advertisement-war-to-win-lok-sabha-elections-may-cost-bjp-whopping-rs-5-000-crore/article1-1207499.aspx)

The BJP has bought about 2,000 daily TV spots across news, general entertainment and sports channels in different languages. A 30-second spot in prime channels costs about Rs80,000. This totals another Rs800-1,000 crores. It spent another Rs150 crores during the T-20 World Cup. Its online and radio budget is Rs35 crores.

The BJP has bought top advertisement slots in newspapers for 40 days. “We have chosen 50 top national and regional newspapers across India and plan to release about four to five ads every day,” costing Rs500 crores, a BJP media planner is quoted as saying. The budget for magazines is another Rs150 crores.

The BJP is consciously fashioning itself like a company and Modi as its CEO. It’s using corporate “story-telling techniques”, with initial advertisements narrating a big theme followed by shorter edited versions taking the story forward.

It has also used ‘roadblocks’ – in which one 75-second BJP ad ran on nine Star Plus shows between 6 and 11 pm on specific days. The BJP has carried out ‘brand integration’ with the RSS on a youth channel which competes with MTV.

All this makes nonsense of the idea of a level playing-field which is at the heart of free and fair elections, where small parties and individuals have an equal chance to compete with big parties. This ceased being the case when ‘India Inc’ took over elections starting in the 1990s when it declared Vajpayee as “the man India awaits” and pumped funds into the BJP. However, never before has the field been as slanted as it is now in favour of monstrous money power and cynical politicians high on the steroids of bigotry and ruthless pursuit of power.

The BJP represents a new perversion of Indian democratic politics because of the sheer scale of its campaign funding and its saturation coverage, which all but squeezes out the competition.

Here’s the real test for the Election Commission. To start with, it should ask all parties to disclose the sources and detailed breakdown of their campaign expenditure, and divide their advertising budgets by the number of constituencies they are contesting from.

This will probably show the BJP exceeding the Rs70-lakh ceiling by 20 multiples, and could enable the EC to force it to curb its spending in the election’s remaining phases.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1@yahoo.co.in