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Why Congress’s Crowdfunding Initiative in Rajasthan Looks Doomed 

Here’s why Congress’s Rajasthan unit would do well to learn from AAP’s crowdfunding drives in 2013 and 2015.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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It’s the age of crowd-funding, and political parties too are taking it up in election season, because... elections cost money.

Back in 2013, as the assembly elections in Delhi approached, the word on ground was that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), was set to challenge the traditional Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Congress duopoly in the state.

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How AAP Aced Art of Crowdfunding

But a party as insistent on clean campaign funds as the AAP was not going to find the task of funding easy. So they turned to the average Indian internet-user with a Rs 20 crore target. Not only did AAP achieve their target,it went on to make an impressive debut – finishing a close second behind the BJP – both in terms of vote share and seats. The Congress came a distant third.

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A little over a year after that episode, the AAP, belying apprehensions of ‘donor fatigue’, managed to raise a similar amount of funds during that year’s Delhi Assembly Elections – and emerged as the overwhelming winner.

The big development however, is the decision of the Congress party to join the bandwagon. After testing the waters with a couple of small appeals – one for a rural hospital in Odisha that PM Modi had allegedly promised but never delivered; the other on behalf of Dr Yogesh Babu (the Congress candidate against controversial BJP leader B Sreeramulu in the Karnataka assembly elections) – the Grand Old Party is now soliciting funds online for its Rajasthan Assembly Election campaign, and may even do so for the 2019 parliamentary elections.

Political parties aside, several off-beat political actors have also started circulating collection plates online for campaign funds. Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and activist Irom Sharmila’s fledgling ‘Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance’ (PRJA), are examples of this.

A Crowdfunding Appeal Needs to be Compelling

Globally, online political crowdfunding has come to be seen as an opportunity for lay citizens to re-capture democracies. It has been argued that the citizens’ exercise of collective monetary muscle could give them much-needed leverage over party agendas and lower entry barriers for fresh voices.

The Indian polity warming up to the option is a welcome trend. That said, parties would do well to reflect on the in-country experience with online crowdfunding, brief as it may be, before taking the plunge. For there have been misses too apart from hits, and the peculiarities of Indian politics mean that things do not always pan out predictably.

That a crowdfunding appeal needs to be compelling – tapping on people’s aspirations for a cleaner, more responsive political class and their instinctive sympathies with scrappy underdogs – is obvious. But the ball truly gets rolling only when the appeal comes from a credible source, one positioned to usher the promised change.

AAP’s appeals in Delhi resonated because its leading lights had a track record when it came to standing up against corruption and abuse of authority. Dr Babu’s campaign did not gain traction despite his credentials because his challenge to Sreeramulu may have been seen as being far too ambitious.

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Congress’s Struggle With Crowdfunding

There is also something to be said about context when it comes to the fund-seeker’s credibility. Sandwiched between the AAP’s successful mobilizations in Delhi was a less successful one for the 2014 parliamentary elections. The same team with the same appeal, while considered equipped to make a difference in Delhi, was doubted for its ability to make a difference on the national canvas.

Importantly, Crowdfunding 101 boxes for social capital and meaningful cause may not be enough as the sluggish initial response to the Rajasthan Congress’ appeal suggests. At the time of writing this piece, only eight percent of the targeted funds had been raised in the first 40 days. At this rate, the Congress will struggle to mobilise even a sixth of the amount it hopes to by the end of its 77-day fundraiser. This is somewhat mystifying since the Congress pitch is framed no differently than AAP’s was and its challenge in Rajasthan is widely seen as serious. Further, the Congress appeal has been widely publicised and its claims of the BJP soaking up most available election funding are not off the mark.

While tracing the slow take off to technology access and use barriers among the Congress’s support base in Rajasthan would be lame (the campaign is global, not restricted to the state), it is possible that a long, 77-day donation window has lulled supporters. 

There may be other, more important factors at play however.

Perception of Congress’s Solicitation

For one, fear of reprisal could be playing on the supporters’ minds. Amidst the backdrop of what promises to be a bitter and close parliamentary election, supporting a political start-up such as AAP carries lesser risk than supporting a resurgent principal opposition in a crucial face-off. Especially against a ruling party that is not exactly coy about flexing muscle. In this backdrop, the Congress supporter may just prefer the anonymity of existing donation channels.

Secondly, notwithstanding the merit in its present appeal, the credibility of its challenge in Rajasthan, and Rahul Gandhi’s persistent and punchy attacks against crony capitalism, question marks linger around the Congress’s motives behind seeking crowdfunding and its long-term commitment to resetting its funding portfolio.

The AAP sought crowdfunding in a quest for a citizen-funded party that aspired to remain free of big donor influence forever; the Congress’ solicitation is perceived driven by a cyclical cash crunch, not transformative intent. With AAP, crowds were urged to throw a lifeline; with Congress, they have been invited to an experiment.

How enthusiastically they have dug into their pockets, reflects it.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted @ManishDubey1972. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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