My first assignment in Punjab was to execute the ‘Halke Vich Captain’ campaign. The campaign was one of the flagship programs and entailed Captain Amarinder Singh visiting individual constituencies and holding public meetings where he would take written submissions from the people of the constituency and resolve to look into all those submissions within the first 100 days of his government. The stated plan was for Captain Amarinder Singh to visit all 117 Assembly Constituencies in Punjab, but we had estimated that he could realistically cover about 60 to 70 constituencies, which would be enough to turn the election.

The beauty of the campaign wasn’t the visit of the CM candidate itself, but the work that went into organizing such an event. Though Amarinder Singh visiting each constituency and meeting people did address the biggest criticism that people had against him, of him being aloof and unreachable, the campaign itself achieved a lot more.

Preparations for the campaign started out with identifying the potential Congress ticket contenders from the constituencies. They would be the primary force for drawing in crowds to the event. They were made to realize that the number of people they could bring to the event would directly translate into their likelihood of getting a party ticket, as it would represent their strength on the ground. This strategy activated the candidates into action, who doubled their campaign efforts. They usually agreed to spend a lot of their own money for hiring vehicles to transporting people to the event, and a lot of them even offered refreshments to the people who’d come.

The next step was to brand the entire constituency, called a ‘Halka’ in Punjab, with Congress posters. We would assemble teams of workers and auto drivers who would cover the constituency with posters of Captain Amarinder Singh and the Congress party over two or three nights. We would hire autos, fitted with sound systems and covered with banners of the event and send them out with flyers to distribute to people in all major villages in the Halka. The idea was to get the message out to everyone in the area that Captain Amarinder Singh had visited. Even if most people did not attend the event itself, they would know that Captain Amarinder Singh had personally visited their Halka and that Congress was the most active party in the state. Simply the image of being the most active party gives you the aura of having the highest likelihood of winning, and this aura often translates into actual support and votes. This is why before every election all parties make grandiose claims of victory, even when they know it is an absurd claim.

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A Halke Vich Captain Poster

I had never really believed that advertising could have such a tremendous impact on an election. As an outside observer, it looked like people make up their minds based on their interaction with other people in their community or on factors like caste or their general belief about the party or candidate. When I actually worked in an election campaign and observed the shift in people’s opinion, I realized that advertising is a bigger driver of public opinion than I had anticipated. Advertising is an effective way of getting your messages and promises across, but more than that it is an effective way of showing that you are worth voting for. A large part of voters don’t want their vote to be ‘wasted’ by voting for a candidate that does not have a shot at winning, through being the most visible party or candidate you can create the perception of leading, which leads to an actual lead.

After the advertising component was handled we had to pay for the venue itself, and for amenities like fans, coolers, tables, chairs and tents at the venue. We also had to pay a company to brand the entire venue with boards and posters of the campaign. In Punjab we had a dedicated vendor who transported the branding material from one event to the other. The same vendor also supplied LED screens, speakers and mics so that the event could be broadcasted outside the main hall of the venue, as the crowds always overflowed into the lawns and beyond.

There was also a cost to managing the media, who had to be taken care of. A component of the cost was also the transport of IPAC employees, a lot of who had to be ferried in from neighboring districts and Chandigarh to assist with the event and who were housed in hotels near the event venue.

After all things were accounted for, each ‘Halke Vich Captain’ event cost us somewhere in the neighborhood of Rs. 12–15 Lakhs, plus the salaries of all IPAC employees it took to run the event. Considering the fact that this was only one out of the three major programs being run by IPAC for the campaign, and that candidates often have to hold many such rallies and meetings during the campaign period, the cost of an election escalates fast.

The hoardings, the TV, newspaper and radio advertisements, the salaries of the people employed to work on the campaign by individual candidates, the cost of hiring video vans that has become the new trend in campaigning, all mount up extremely fast. Politics in the modern age is not cheap. There are politicians who have done it on a shoestring budget, or successfully funded their campaigns by collecting donations from the people. It is a possibility, but it is not the mainstream of how politics is currently done. If you plan to enter politics one day, it is important to understand the financial muscle it requires to contest elections.

According to filings with the Election Commission of India the BJP spent Rs 714.28 crore (over $100 million) on the 2014 General Election campaign. This figure does not include the amounts spent by individual candidates within their constituencies and the amount in such filings is massively underreported. The Indian Express estimated just the advertising budget of political parties at about Rs. 2000 crores ($300 million). An Indian think tank called Centre for Media Studies estimated the total expenditure by all parties in the 2014 general elections at Rs. 30,000 crores ($5 billion). Even if we disregard the unofficial estimates and focus solely on the filings made by political parties it becomes clear that an expenditure of at least Rs. 2 crores is required for each MP constituency.

The BJP spent 714.28 crores and contested the elections on 427 seats. This means that the party spent an average amount of Rs. 1.67 crores per seat. The limit of spending by candidates was also raised to Rs. 70 lakhs for big states and Rs. 54 lakh for small states and union territories. Assuming that most candidates spent at least the amount allowed by the Election Commission and adding in the average amount per constituency spent by the party, Rs. 2 crores is a modest estimate. These numbers don’t include any amounts distributed by candidates in cash or spent on liquor, sarees and other giveaways.

The high cost of politics has implications for all of society. An honest person who isn’t a successful businessman and wants to work for society might be best suited to become a politician, but isn’t well suited to actually winning an election. The corruption of politicians is often explained as a consequence of the cost of doing business. They need to raise the money they spent on winning the previous election while also raising funds to contest the next one. They also need to raise money to sustain themselves in the event that they lose the next election.

This need for raising money to contest elections wasn’t limited to securing one’s own seat. A politician could be sure of winning their own constituency solely due to the work that they have done but they still might be expected to contribute to the party. This is truer for Ministers, and most simple MPs and MLAs even receive funds from the party to contest elections. This funding model is changing drastically though.

Now individual politicians aren’t expected to contribute anything, and the entirety of the party’s budget is raised from corporates. The reform in electoral funding brought in through the system of Electoral Bonds introduced by the current BJP government will give an impetus to this transformation, as companies will now be able to donate to political parties anonymously. While this does lead to the money in politics being ‘white’ it also has the potential to entrench crony capitalism into the system as corporates could donate through electoral bonds for specific favours and it would be impossible to establish a quid pro quo. Electoral reform is beyond the purview of this article though and the real point I am making is that politics is expensive.

At some level the voters have also come to accept the inevitability of corruption in politics. The India Against Corruption movement led by Anna Hazare successfully raised mass support against corruption, but that seems to have fizzled out again. As a society we are more willing that ever to overlook corruption, especially if it isn’t in the form of direct bribes from the people.

I remember that in my own childhood, the corrupt were ostracized by society. People used to look down on anyone who had a corrupt image and even tell their family to not interact with the corrupt individual’s family. A lot has changed since then and now all that seems to matter is the amount of money one has, regardless of the source. People support even those politicians who have been convicted for corruption while crony capitalism and political financing remain esoteric topics beyond general conversation.

This acceptability of corruption presents a new challenge to any educated and honest person entering politics. He or she will have to find new ways to counteract the influence of money in politics, because if one wants to engage in honest politics one will be outspent.


Read Lessons 1 to 5 of Project Politics here: 5 Lessons About Politics from the Campaign Trail

Feedback and views are deeply appreciated. Tweet at me @ShivamShankarS or just leave a comment!

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