“Have you not heard of Munugode?” I was in Telangana, trying to make sense of the forthcoming elections. Every conversation began and ended with money.
This was my turn to be smiled at. For a while I had been smiling at the naiveté of my movement friends in understanding the scale of money involved in electoral politics. I smiled when my friends shared “shocking” tales of money in politics these days. My friend from Bihar said every candidate spends more than a crore, several times more than the official limit. My friend from Madhya Pradesh said it’s worse than that. Parties don’t consider you for a ticket unless you have at least 2 crores to spend.
I smiled because a few months ago I was in Karnataka. I had a chance encounter with a failed aspirant from one of the major parties. Dejected and bitter, the aspirant was complaining about the lack of any transparency in the selection of candidates. I was all sympathetic. “What should I do now with all my investment?” the candidate turned to me. I mumbled something about politics being a long-term game where no investment goes waste. “No, that’s not what I was asking. I have a concrete problem. What should I do with 40 thousand colour TV sets that I bought for distribution, when I was assured a ticket? They told me things get expensive close to the elections, so I bought these well in time for a discount.” That would be at least Rs. 40 crores even if we price a bottom of the range discounted TV at Rs. 10,000 a piece, I reckoned.
Stunned with this disclosure, I made inquiries in the political circles. Sure, this particular candidate’s budget was over the top, but an overall expenditure in this range was the norm. The total expenditure of each candidate in a normal rural assembly constituency in Karnataka was Rs. 20 – 30 crores, a little lower in reserved seats and the little higher in the prosperous regions. In the urban seats, especially in and around Bangalore, the expenditure was to the tune of 40-50 crores. Everyone spoke about this candidate in a constituency at the periphery of Bangalore who was reported to have spent 150 crores. That was an exception.
Since then I have been trying to get a sense of the scale of money in the ongoing elections. Karnataka is on the higher side, but so are most of the southern and western states except perhaps Kerala. The much-maligned corrupt politics of the Hindi heartland cannot compete with them. Clearly, the more prosperous a state, the higher the rates. But in the northern states as well, every serious assembly candidate spends around 5 to 10 crores. Assuming an average of 10 crores across the states and at least 3 serious candidates per constituency, this adds up to about Rs. 1.25 lakh crores just for assembly elections across the country. And perhaps we should think of a similar amount for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.
Is anyone watching? Yes, the Election Commission of India has a whole division dedicated to election expenditure monitoring. There is a fat manual of do’s and don’ts of election expenditure for parties and candidates. There are rules and proforma that require you to file in every detail of what you spend in elections, including a separate row for garlands and flowers in the election rally.
This is when I encountered Munugode. I was in Telangana sharing my dismay at the level of election expenditure in Karnataka. This time my friends smiled at me. “Just 20-30 CR? You must be joking. Have you not heard of Munugode?” I vaguely remembered this by-election that was held in the midst of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in 2022. I recalled tales of how desperate Telangana CM KCR was to win this by-election for his newly christened BRS. The Congress was keen to defend the seat it held and the BJP to demonstrate its growing clout.
The consequences were staggering, at least in terms of elections expenditure. It was not limited to rent-a-crowd rallies or the usual biryani with liquor or sarees. It was reported that one of the contestants gifted one tola (about 11 gm) of gold to each family. There were standard rates not just for attending a rally or canvassing for a day, but even for wearing the scarf of a party for one day. Some villages who were left out of the cash distribution sat on dharna on the polling day with placards “No money, no vote”. In these booths voting finally began, post settlement, at 3 pm and continued till 11 pm. Political grapewine in Telangana puts the ruling party expenditure in Munugode at Rs. 400 cr. Forum for Good Governance, an NGO, filed a complaint to the Election Commission alleging a total expenditure of Rs 617 crores in this by-poll.
Munugode has apparently set ‘gold’ standards for election expenditure in Telangana. This time no candidate is expected to spend less than Rs 100 cr in each assembly segment. Even if this is a hyperbole, we are looking at more than 50 crore of spending by each candidate in a general seat. Munugode could be the future of electoral politics in India. At the ground level of electoral competition, we are not looking at a nexus of business and politics anymore. More often than not politics is a ‘side business’. You make your money through mines, exports, and educational institutions. And then you get into politics – and media — to protect your main business interests.
Is anyone watching? Yes, the Election Commission of India has a whole division dedicated to election expenditure monitoring. There is a fat manual of do’s and don’ts of election expenditure for parties and candidates. There are rules and proforma that require you to file in every detail of what you spend in elections, including a separate row for garlands and flowers in the election rally. There is an army of IRS officers who are stationed as Election Expenditure Observers, each supported by a local team. And then there are raiding teams that set up check-posts and examine every passing vehicle to catch any attempt at electoral inducement. There is an upper limit of permissible expenditure, Rs. 40 lakhs per assembly constituency in most states. There are strict deadlines for filing returns. And routine disqualification for those who fail to file the returns.
There is a catch, though. So far, no elected MLA or MP has been disqualified during his or her tenure due to false expenditure statements. One MLA was disqualified after her tenure was over. A handful of cases are pending in courts. That’s all. That is the net outcome of the entire charade of election expenditure monitoring.
For the record, all the major candidates in Munugode have duly filed their expenditure returns, the highest one claims an overall expenditure of Rs 34.5 lakhs!
I heard the Election Commission’s latest announcement on Model Code of Conduct, the limit of Rs. 40 lakhs per constituency, the appointment of Expenditure Observers, … I just smiled. And I wondered if we would not save some money by abolishing this farce of a ceiling and monitoring of election expenditure.