Are India’s costly elections a democratic failure?

Are India’s costly elections a democratic failure?


Elections are the focal point of democratic politics worldwide; and rightly so. Elections are the feedback mechanism by which voters can reward or punish legislators and governments for their performance over a political cycle, and by which peaceful, transparent transitions of power can take place. “Free and fair elections” are said to be the surest sign of the health of a democracy.

But elections also constitute one of the major organizational challenges and working costs of democracies. They demand vast expenditure from the public exchequer in countries like India, with electorates numbering — at their highest point, in national elections every five years — over 800 million. And they also contribute to pronounced spikes in economic activity, as political parties spend on media and advertising, travel and entertainment, and gifts and feasts in an attempt to woo voters. All these occurrences are usually accepted as benign matters in democratic politics, just business as usual.

But when should the amount of money spent by political parties on election campaigns start to worry us? At what point should we feel that elections are becoming so expensive that they might amount to a subversion of democratic politics itself? If elections require such large investments of capital that only the wealthy can afford them, then what are the chances that governments and legislatures made up entirely of such candidates can make policy in the interests of society at large — and especially the poor?

These are the interesting questions asked by two political scientists and longstanding observers of Indian politics, Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav, in their new book “Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India.” Although estimating the exact amount of money spent by Indian political parties on major elections is difficult because of the opaque and shadowy nature of campaign finance in India, and because so much electoral spending is done in cash, we have some ballpark figures. And they make for provoking reading.

Indian democracy is becoming a monopoly of the rich and the corrupt ... when should the amount of money spent by political parties on election campaigns start to worry us?

Chandrahas Choudhury

According to a survey of electoral spending made by India’s Centre for Media Studies, the amount spent by political parties in the general election of 2004 was 4,500 crore rupees (about $1 billion at exchange rates at the time). In 2009, this figure had more than doubled to 10,000 crore rupees. And, in 2014, partly as the result of a giant blitzkrieg by the challenger Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, campaign spending clocked in at 30,000 crore rupees ($5 billion), making it the second most expensive electoral campaign on record after the US presidential election of 2012.

That is to say, electoral inflation in India is completely out of sync with economic inflation overall. With every new election cycle, the financial requirements for competitive performance become ever more onerous. Indian democracy is becoming a monopoly of the rich and the corrupt (including those who have used an election victory to increase their assets so dramatically that they have in effect prepared a war chest for subsequent elections).

What could be the reason for electoral spending rising at such a dramatic pace? Vaishnav and Kapur, as well as other contributors to their volume, advance some interesting answers. One reason is the large amounts of cash available in India’s new economy, especially in the poorly regulated realms of real estate and construction, much of which is subject to laws on urban planning and land ownership that can only be tweaked by the political class. By this token, election spending is a kind of business investment, rising in sync with the profits potentially at stake.

A second reason — although it would seem at first glance to be a remote cause — is the lack of intra-party democracy in India’s major political parties, many of which are run by members of a family. Because all major decisions (including the selection of candidates for major elections) are made by a small, secretive elite, candidates are often decided at the last moment, without inputs from party workers. Many candidates buy their way into the system by, effectively, paying the party for the right to contest.

In such a system, electoral funds flow not from the party to the candidate but rather from the candidate to the party. The right to be a candidate of a major political party becomes a prize for the highest bidder: One who can also back up his initial investment with more cash in the campaign. This too is a recipe for electoral inflation and corruption.

But not all the reasons behind the rising cost of elections in India are negative. Elections are also becoming more expensive, the data shows, because they are becoming more competitive. Although there are six major national parties in India and a host of strong regional parties, in most constituencies the contest tends to be stably Duvergerian: That is, one where only one of two parties have a serious chance of winning (the term harks back to the work of the French sociologist Maurice Duverger, who discovered it to be a characteristic of first-past-the-post electoral systems such as India’s).

This means that, in most constituencies, the major candidates or electoral alliances have to spend increasing amounts of cash on an electorate that is itself rapidly increasing in size (each of India’s 543 constituencies electing a legislator to the Lok Sabha, or Lower House of Parliament, has about 1.5 million eligible voters) to win a battle that could easily swing the other way.

A host of developments and dynamic scenarios, then, are making elections in India exponentially costly. Does this cycle have even greater excesses to come? We will find out when India goes to the polls again in 2019. What I do know for sure is that, at my current levels of income, there is no way I could ever afford to be a candidate in an Indian election.


  • Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweets
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