The Indian elections, one of the most elaborate mass marketing extravaganzas of its kind, have always been a cash-rich affair. Austerity is an unknown word in electoral battles. While previously the capacity of political parties in Kerala to rake in funds was never in doubt, the economic disruption wrought by the Covid-19 lockdown in Kerala seems to have taken its toll on the spending capacity of the parties.
The Covid-19 lockdown took place even as the state's economy was tottering under the devastation caused by two back-to-back floods in 2018 and 2019. Except for a handful of VIP candidates, the ongoing campaign in the state is seeing conspicuously subdued spending. Cash crunch is the byword with the campaign managers of most candidates.
No Poster Wars
"Cash-crunch is quite perceptible if we go by posters, banners, and other publicity materials,” says Ravi Sangamitra, who runs a design and communication agency based in Thodupuzha. In normal circumstances, four rounds of posters would have been plastered by each of the candidates by this time.
But so far, they have confined it to a single round of posters, he said, referring to the situation in Idukki district. "We have given designs for the second, third, and fourth round of posters and are waiting for confirmation of orders,” he said. According to Sangamitra, money spent by candidates of mainstream parties is at least 50 per cent less than what they spent in previous elections.
Posters, banners, notices, requests by candidates, graffiti, vehicle announcements, squad work, musicals, promotions through social media platforms, family gatherings, and booth management are the essential ingredients of election campaigns in Kerala.
Each activity incurs a cost. Communist parties could bank on dedicated cadres to take on much of the work free of cost in the past. But this time, even such cadre-based parties have seen the need to shell-out daily wages for those engaged in full-time campaigns. The family gatherings, squad work, and booth management are the costliest items on the list.
Moolah at Stake
People familiar with elections say that a candidate of a mainstream political party need to spend at least Rs 3 to 5 crore in an Assembly constituency. In a three-cornered contest, this means an average of Rs 10 to 15 crore in each constituency, as the state has three main political formations comprising the Congress-led UDF, CPI(M)-led LDF, and BJP-led NDA.
Applying simple maths, a minimum of Rs 1,400 crore should have flown into the poll market for the 140 Assembly seats in the state.
According to most indications so far, there has been no sign of such huge amounts reaching the campaign market. "Maybe a splurge is likely in the next few days as campaign managers are spending in a very focused manner", says Jeejo Augustine, a veteran journalist and writer, currently living in Pala.
Congress Worst Hit, CPI(M) Afloat
Congress is the worst hit, as the party does not have the luxury of getting sufficient funds from the central leadership like in the past. One, the Congress’ lack of power in the Centre has led several donors to back away from funding the party. Secondly, senior leaders of the party are skeptical about spending hefty amounts on Kerala elections where predictions indicate that the Congress may lose.
Its capacity to raise resources locally is also limited due to various factors. Liquor contractors, real estate barons, quarrying and sand mining contractors, for-profit educational institutions and big retailers comprised the main donors for political parties in the state. All these businesses have been impacted by the economic downturn.
Liquor barons, reputed to be the largest political donors in the state, wouldn’t shell out anything for Congress as the previous UDF government closed most bars in the state.
The overall downturn in the economy has also impacted liquor consumption, hitting the ability of liquor vendors to pay donations as they used to do in the past, Augustine said.
The ruling LDF is in a better position as the fund management of CPI(M) has always been better organised than the Congress. In the case of CPI(M), funds are properly audited in the respective party forums and the bulk of the donations remain in the possession of the party organisation.
The reverse is true in the case of Congress as the bulk of political funds ends up in the private accounts of leaders, as the party lacks a proper auditing system. The Indian Union Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Joseph) which are main allies of the Congress, however, have not been facing the acute cash crunch faced by their senior partner.
BJP Flush With Funds Thanks to Electoral Bonds
Among the three main formations in the electoral fray in the state, the BJP-led NDA seems to be the least affected by the fund crunch. The party, having the distinction of pocketing Rs 1,450 crore worth of electoral bonds in 2018-19, apart from another Rs 1,000 crore as political donations, is taking care of funding needs of its candidates very well, according to various ground reports.
While the figures gathered by Association for Democratic Reforms indicate the fund tallies of the previous year, it is rather apparent that the BJP’s funding channels are flush even this year, given the exorbitant array of campaigning methods including massive public rallies organised by the party in states like Kerala and West Bengal.
As the campaign enters its last phase, with a week remaining for the polls, most campaign managers are hopeful that the money flow would gain greater velocity in the next few days.
Dismissing all talk about a fund crunch as a diversionary tactic employed by parties in each election, Jacob Thomas, a veteran journalist based in Kozhikode, says candidates raise the necessary resources by hook or by crook.
"I am always skeptical about any talk of cash-crunch. The intense jockeying for each seat in every party shows that these people have the capacity to raise the necessary resources. Otherwise, they wouldn't fight tooth and nail to get election tickets,” he said. According to him, the economic downturn might have compelled most party leaders to depend more on their personal wealth than on donors for their campaigns.
(KP Sethunath is a journalist and Malayalam non-fiction writer. He is the former bureau chief of Deccan Chronicle. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)