by Praful Bidwai

Two weeks ago, many public-spirited Indians complimented the Election Commission for banning public speeches and rallies by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Uttar Pradesh chief campaign manager Amit Shah, and the Samajwadi Party’s fiery Azam Khan, both of whom had made provocative speeches for or against religious groups.

This action was seen as in keeping with the Commission’s mandate, legally well-founded, even-handed, exemplary in punishing/deterring the use of communal means during canvassing, and encouraging the conduct of elections in a free and fair manner, as befits a democracy.

Less than a week later, however, the EC lifted the prohibition on Mr Shah—merely because he claimed that his recent hate speech calling for political “revenge” against Muslims was never intended to “violate the election code of conduct”, and offered the vague assurance that he would keep the EC’s “remarks in mind” and not use “abusive or derogatory language” in future. The EC said it would video-track his campaign.

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

The EC refused to lift the ban on Mr Khan—although his own questionable speech was partly a reaction to Mr Shah—because he didn’t accept the EC’s criticism or promise better conduct.

The message this sent was that legalistic deviousness and hypocrisy pays: Mr Shah got out of a tricky situation which compromised the BJP’s political legitimacy merely by proclaiming that his intentions were honourable. But far greater damage was done in using communalism for electoral gains.

Mr Shah is the BJP’s second most important leader after Narendra Modi, and his trusted lieutenant or hatchet-man from even before the 2002 butchery. Mr Shah is on trial for extortion and ordering three “fake encounter” killings in Gujarat, and was long exiled from the state by the Supreme Court to prevent interference with investigation.

Mr Shah is out on bail. He’s adept at gaming the system, having held 10 or more portfolios simultaneously under Mr Modi during 12 years which saw 32 police officers jailed for murder.

Within two days of Mr Shah being let off lightly by the EC, the BJP’s Nawada candidate Giriraj Singh unleashed a hysterical tirade demonising Mr Modi’s opponents as Pakistani agents who should be exiled there. He said this in the presence of former BJP president Nitin Gadkari and a party MP. Last October, Mr Singh had accused Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of engineering bomb blasts at a Modi rally in Patna. Although the BJP’s national leadership has distanced itself from his latest remarks, Mr Singh has refused to retract them. The Congress and Janata Dal(United) have moved the Election Commission against Mr Singh. Whether the EC acts firmly against him by disqualifying him from the election, or lets him off as lightly as Mr Shah, remains unclear.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad president Pravin Togadia has already taken the cue from these episodes. He delivered a vile hate speech in Bhavnagar in Gujarat on April 19, targeting Muslims for buying properties in “Hindu areas”. If they don’t vacate these “in 48 hours”, he instigated a charged-up Hindutva mob, to “go with stones, tyres and tomatoes…There is nothing wrong in it…Rajiv Gandhi’s killers haven’t been hanged…there is nothing to fear and the case will go on…”

Halfway into the elections, BJP leaders aren’t confident of victory. It’s a sign of their desperation that they are trying to polarise people along Hindu-Muslim lines to win votes. The EC would be failing 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 of constituencies. This is being flagrantly violated by any number of political parties which are using vast amounts of slush funds in their campaigns. It’s wrong in the first place to set limits on individual candidates alone—when the real critical actors in the electoral system are political parties.

Parties spend huge amounts on everything from hiring helicopters and airplanes, renting fleets of vehicles, organising massive rallies, providing food and drink, and paying cadres and motivators, to producing campaign merchandise (including posters, caps, T-shirts, masks, photos, etc), and buying expensive advertising space or TV slots. Only a minuscule part of this is accounted for.

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, which has done outstanding work in documenting unethical electoral practices, including candidates’ criminal records and their enormous financial assets, parties receive up to three-fourths of their campaign funds from unknown or anonymous sources: only donations above Rs 20,000 need to be disclosed.

India is one of the few countries of the world, says the well-regarded Stockholm-based International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which allows “parties or candidates to receive anonymous donations”. Indian scholars like E Sreedharan and MV Rajeeva Gowda 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 as much as Rs 30,000 crores will be spent on the current elections, mostly by political parties—a three-fold rise over 2009. This exceeds India’s primary education allocation of Rs 27,000 crores, and is only slightly lower than the 2012 US presidential campaign spending of Rs 42,000 crores. This is ethically repugnant by any criterion.

Even if we discount the CMS estimate, according to the advertising-public relations industry, the big parties have an advertising budget totalling Rs 8-10,000 crores, as reported in any number of financial papers. Of this, the BJP alone, which is the chosen party of Big Business, has a share estimated at Rs 5,000 crores, probably four times higher than the Congress’s advertising kitty.

This is not as astronomical as it sounds. For instance, each of the 15,000 full-colour Modi hoardings the BJP is erecting for up to three months costs Rs 2-3 lakhs per month in cheap locations, and as much as Rs 20 lakhs at prime sites, totalling an expense of Rs 2,500 crores. (

The BJP has bought about 2,000 TV daily spots across Hindi, English and regional channels broadcasting news, entertainment and sports. A spot in prime entertainment channels costs about Rs. 80,000 per 30 seconds. This totals another Rs 800-1,000 crores. It spent another Rs 150 crores during the T-20 World Cup. Its online and radio budget is about Rs 35 crores.

The BJP has bought top advertisement slots across national, regional and vernacular 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 Rs. 500 crores, a BJP media planner is quoted as saying. The advertisement budget for magazines is an additional Rs 150 crores. The BJP is consciously modelling its advertising along corporate lines, fashioning itself like a company and Mr 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. The party 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, closely linked to the RSS, has carried out “brand integration” activities on Channel V, 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 a more-or-less equal chance to compete with big party machines. This ceased being the case when India Inc took over elections starting in the 1990s when it declared Mr 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 and distortion of Indian democratic politics because of the sheer scale of its campaign funding and its saturation coverage, which all but squeezes out the competition. The real test for the Election Commission lies here. To start with, it should ask all major parties to disclose the sources and detailed breakdown of their campaign expenditure, and divide their enormous advertising budgets by the constituencies they are contesting from.

This will probably show the BJP exceeding the Rs 70-lakh ceiling by 20 multiples, and could enable the EC to force it to curb its spending in the remaining phases of the election.