In America, the period between a candidate’s announcement of his intention to run for office and the party’s primary election is known as the “money primary.” It’s during this time that aspiring candidates must prove to party bosses and the public that they can rake in enough money to win.
The primary election is not yet a fixture on the Indian political scene. But the country’s general election, for which voting began on April 7 and will conclude on Monday, demonstrates that the covert money primary is nonetheless widespread.
When the results are announced on May 16, polls suggest that India’s 815 million voters are likely to have replaced the incumbent government headed by the Congress Party with an opposition coalition led by Narendra Modi, the controversial leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. In making his pitch, Mr. Modi has spared no expense: He has saturated the airwaves, pioneered a sophisticated social media campaign and even taken to beaming holographic images of himself to rallies across the country.
This is the new world of Indian elections, where costs have soared in recent years; overall spending this cycle is expected to reach $5 billion, second only to the amount spent on the 2012 presidential election in the United States. This increase has a number of causes, and far-reaching consequences.
First, as India’s population has grown, so too has the size of its political constituencies. The average parliamentary constituency in 1951-52, when India held its first post-independence election, had roughly 350,000 voters; today that figure stands at 1.5 million. More voters mean more money spent on outreach and handouts.
Second, elections have become more competitive. In 2009, when India last held national elections, the average margin of victory in a parliamentary contest was 9.7 percent, the thinnest since independence. Candidates in close races have become locked in an arms race of campaign spending.
Third, the scope of elections has broadened. Thanks to constitutional amendments in the early 1990s that established new tiers of village and town governments, India went from having some 4,000 elected positions to nearly three million virtually overnight. Funds must be raised for every rung on the political ladder.
Fourth, since 1971, when Indira Gandhi called an early national election, state and national election cycles have been uncoupled. As a consequence, parties and politicians must collect money more frequently while contributors can no longer get away with a one-shot gift for all elections.
Finally, Indian voters expect more handouts as parties compete to outdo one another with costly pre-election “gifts.” This practice is, of course, explicitly forbidden yet routinely pursued. Gifts range from the obvious (cash and liquor) to the surreal (opium paste or bricks for home construction).
In mid-April I traveled to Seemandhra, part of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, soon to be divided into two states after a vote by Parliament earlier this year. Thanks to a quirk of the election cycle, it was in the midst of intense campaigning for simultaneous state assembly and national parliamentary elections. Although candidates for state elections are limited by federal law to spending $47,000 on campaigning, a few I spoke with said they planned to spend between $1.5 million and $2 million. One aspirant said that three-quarters of his expenses would occur on the last four days of the campaign, on house-to-house distribution of cash and liquor.
Parliamentary candidates, whose spending is capped at roughly $116,000, were reportedly spending 25 times that amount. When I asked one important party broker just how much candidates were spending in his district of West Godavari, he replied flatly: “As much as they can possibly get their hands on.”
A United States diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks reported that, in 2009, a candidate in Tamil Nadu paid approximately $100 per voter ahead of a special election by distributing cash in envelopes that were delivered to voters’ houses tucked inside their morning newspapers, along with the party’s voting slip.
In one neighborhood I visited during Gujarat’s December 2012 elections, the incumbent state legislator had instructed owners of neighborhood kiosks to provide complimentary cellphone charging, courtesy of the candidate. A candidate from a rival party, catching wind of the scheme, instructed kiosks to do the same — but for a slightly longer charge — on his own dime.
Voters, however, mostly told me that they couldn’t be “bought”; they took from all parties but voted their conscience on Election Day. When I repeated this to a state assembly candidate, he told me that I misunderstood. He was not “buying” votes with cash handouts, but buying into the game; to distribute cash did not guarantee victory, he reasoned, it kept one competitive. “If money is distributed, voters might give you a chance. But if money is not distributed, you are finished.”
The obvious thing to do would be for all candidates to stop giving money, but enforcing such a pact would be difficult. One small-business owner from the city of Rajahmundry recalled that during the 2009 assembly elections, a candidate from the Telugu Desam Party called a summit meeting with his two major rivals. He proposed a truce: Rather than throw away their money, how about collectively agreeing to nominal cash handouts on the eve of elections? The T.D.P. candidate’s rivals fell for it, and agreed to the nominal amount, while he went on to hand out more and promptly won the election.
The deluge of money in India’s political system is shaping more than just the nature of competition; it’s also having an effect on who gains entry into politics in the first place, as parties rely more on candidates who can pay their own way. The country’s politicians are increasingly being drawn from four demographics: political dynasties, criminals, industrialists and celebrities. Common to all, of course, are deep pockets.
The most storied political dynasty in India is the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has ruled the country for more than half of its post-independence history. The family is represented in this election by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party’s putative prime ministerial candidate, and his mother, Sonia Gandhi, the party’s president. According to work by the political scientists Kanchan Chandra of New York University and Anjali Bohlken of the University of British Columbia, nearly a third of members of Parliament elected in 2009 hailed from political families.
Then there are the suspected criminals, who either by virtue of their illicit connections or their dangerous reputations (perhaps both), have ready access to liquid forms of financing. In 2009 there were 79 serving members of Parliament — 14 percent of the total — facing serious criminal charges. Many notorious gangsters are vying for national office this year, including Pappu Yadav, a politician from Bihar State recently freed from jail after a murder conviction was thrown out, and Vitthalbhai Radadiya, a colleague of Mr. Modi’s who was famously caught on camera in 2012 pulling a gun on a tollbooth operator who dared to ask for the toll.
But of those members of Parliament elected in 2009, the five richest were wealthy industrialists: Nama Nageswara Rao and Lagadapati Rajagopal ran influential infrastructure companies; Praful Patel’s family controls the CeeJay Group, a manufacturer of Indian cigarettes known as bidis; G. Vivekanand serves as “promoter vice chairman” of a cement and textile interest; and Naveen Jindal is the chairman of a steel and power conglomerate. Together, they were worth roughly $125 million at the time of their election.
And finally there are the rich celebrities in Parliament — from the Telugu film star Chiranjeevi to the actress-dancer-producer Hema Malini. Even the cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar, one of the most revered figures in Indian sports history, was inaugurated into India’s upper house of Parliament in 2012.
Many of these deep-pocketed candidates view the money they must spend on elections as more than just the price of admission; rather, they have come to view it as a down payment on an investment that offers serious returns. A research paper by the Association for Democratic Reforms, an Indian good-government watchdog, analyzed the financial disclosures of members of Parliament elected in 2004 who ran again in 2009. It reported that their assets increased, on average, 289 percent in five years.
Thus, the incentives of India’s electoral gantlet are perfectly aligned for parties to recruit wealthy candidates; for these candidates to expend huge sums to get into office; and, if lucky enough to win, to use their positions to recoup that investment — with interest.
There are a few brave souls bucking the trend. Mr. Modi, for instance, is an outsider who famously spent his childhood on a railway platform where his father sold tea. But today, his campaign is funded by several of India’s most prominent corporate titans.
Then there is the former bureaucrat turned politician Arvind Kejriwal, whose Aam Aadmi Party stormed the electoral scene in Delhi’s state elections last December and is now making a play for the national political stage. His party spoke out against vote-buying and hidden election expenditures, made transparent political donations irrespective of size, and vowed to adhere to the Election Commission’s strict expenditure limits. Mr. Kejriwal’s hope was that the party’s clean brand of politics would transcend the money primary, opening up greater political space for a fifth category of political aspirant: the common man (or “aam aadmi,” in Hindi).
Unfortunately, the party has struggled to make the transition from a protest movement to a governing party, weakening its appeal among the middle classes, and potentially placing the reform movement at risk.
One evening in Andhra Pradesh, I asked a candidate from the Y.S.R. Congress Party whether the huge expenses he was incurring would be worth it. He paused, and then said that he did not know: “If I am lucky enough to win, next time, I’ll need even more money. How does one remain honest and succeed in politics in this country?”