Telangana Assembly Polls 2023: Unofficial poll expenditure pegged at Rs 5,000 crore

According to sources, candidates from major parties often spend upwards of Rs 20-25 crore each to mount a serious challenge. This is why a majority of candidates representing major parties are billionaires

Telangana Assembly Polls 2023: Unofficial poll expenditure pegged at Rs 5,000 crore

HYDERABAD: As the Assembly elections in Telangana loom closer, the election spending is set to skyrocket, potentially becoming the costliest in history. Preliminary estimations suggest a staggering combined expenditure exceeding Rs 5,000 crore. While such a number may sound implausible at first, a detailed breakdown paints a vivid picture of where this money flows.

On paper, the rules are clear: each candidate can spend up to Rs 40 lakh for their campaign. So, with three major parties – the BRS, the Congress, and the BJP - contesting all 119 seats, that's a tidy sum of Rs 142.80 crore. Add to this the expenses of smaller parties and independent candidates, and the official expenditure climbs to a colossal Rs 300 crore. But this number is merely scratching the surface.

According to sources, candidates from major parties often spend upwards of Rs 20-25 crore each to mount a serious challenge. This is why a majority of candidates representing major parties are billionaires.

In reality, candidates from prominent parties often need to invest between Rs 20-25 crores to remain competitive. Consequently, most candidates from these major parties boast billionaire status. Their expenses often commence the moment they start vying for a party ticket. A recent allegation against TPCC's President claims the selling of 65 party tickets for Rs 600 crore. While this is unconfirmed, the trend of candidates heavily spending to secure a nomination is evident.

Approximately, hopefuls from 50 out of the 119 seats might expend between Rs 5-10 crore just to lock down those coveted party tickets. Thus, by the time candidates are announced, roughly Rs 500-600 crore would have already been spent. And this is just the beginning.

The real expenditure begins from the day of filing of the nomination. Candidates spend huge amounts of money on flags, banners, T-shirts, and other campaign paraphernalia. In addition, they also typically purchase a special campaign vehicle.

Telangana is witnessing a triangular fight in almost all 119 Assembly constituencies. To reach voters in these constituencies, candidates set up election offices in each polling booth. In urban areas, a group of 3-4 polling booths are typically treated as a unit. In rural areas, villages are treated as units. As a result, the 35,356 polling stations in Telangana are divided into at least 10,000 units/election offices.

In a triangular contest, this multiplies the number of election offices to 30,000 units belonging to all major parties. From the day of filing nomination till the end of polling, each party needs to spend huge amounts on managing these offices. Each election office is typically managed by at least 50 workers on a 24x7 basis.

These workers conduct padayatras, distribute pamphlets, check voter lists, and organize "get-togethers" with locals in the evenings. The candidates need to take care of their food, beverages, cigarettes, liquor, and other needs till the end of the campaign. In addition, each worker is typically paid an amount of about Rs 1,000 per day.

Overall, the candidates spend an average of Rs 3,000 on each party worker from the day of filing till the end of elections. Even if a candidate is filing a nomination on the last day, i.e., November 10, then he/she will have to spend Rs 1.5 lakh on each election office for the next 20 days, which comes to Rs 30 lakh. This figure is likely to be an underestimate, as the actual expenditure is often much higher.

During election time, the definition of party workers changes completely. It is not a simple headcount. There are influencers in each area who maintain a large group of followers and are paid huge sums of up to Rs 5 lakh. Many candidates also pay large amounts to local rowdy sheeters for two reasons. Firstly, to seek their support on election day and secondly, to keep them silent. Otherwise, these rowdy elements may disrupt their campaigns or attack local party workers.

Electioneering is a period when politicians are extremely vulnerable to threats and blackmail. This is the period when politicians try to manage the situations with compromises rather than entering into a confrontation.

Besides spending on election materials, managing party workers, and election offices, many candidates allegedly pay huge bribes to the officials on election duty to seek their support throughout the campaign. This is a kind of ransom they pay to buy peace during this crucial period.

In addition to bribing officials, candidates also spend large sums of money on luring voters. This includes paying for transportation, food, and liquor for those who attend public meetings. In some cases, candidates may even pay voters directly in exchange for their votes.

The more people who attend a public meeting, the more the candidate has to spend. Some agencies specialise in bringing crowds to political meetings. In addition, candidates often pay for the helicopter rent to bring a celebrity or star campaigner to the meeting.

In some constituencies, voters have become so accustomed to receiving money from candidates that they will not even come out of their houses to see a rally or padayatra unless they are paid to do so. In the Munugode by-elections, there were reports that each household was paid from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 each just to stand outside their house and watch the candidate wave at them.

As soon as a party announces its candidate, the candidate's supporters start booking orders for liquor and food for booz parties in the villages. The winnability of a candidate is often seen as depending on how much liquor and food they can arrange for the voters in their area.

For example, during the Munugode by-elections in October 2022, the liquor sales in 29 liquor stores in the constituency reached Rs 90 crores in the first 15 days of October. This was more than double the amount of liquor sold in the non-election period of August. As the election day drew closer, liquor sales reached their peak and crossed the Rs 200 crore mark.

While the Munugode by-election could be an exceptional case, the average amount of money collectively spent by candidates of all major parties on liquor is estimated to be at least Rs 25 crore in at least 70 (mostly rural) out of 119 Assembly constituencies. This takes the amount spent on liquor alone to nearly Rs 1,750 crore.

In addition to liquor, candidates also spend large sums of money on food. For example, if a candidate provides a non-vegetarian biryani pack for 50 people for 15 days at 100 election offices in a constituency for Rs 50 per pack, then the candidate ends up spending Rs 37.50 lakh. If this is done by candidates of all major parties, then they spend Rs 1.12 crore on food alone. Some candidates also ensure the free supply of tea, and cigarettes, by spending a few thousand rupees every day.

In addition to liquor and food, candidates also distribute freebies like pressure cookers, grinders, cricket kits, and other household items as gifts to lure voters. On average, if a candidate spends Rs 10 lakh in each of the 119 constituencies, then they collectively spend about Rs 119 crore on such freebies.

A significant amount is also spent on media management. Besides official advertisements and paid articles, which are counted in the candidates' or party's account, the candidates pay huge amounts to local media not only for publishing stories in their favour but also against their rivals. Similarly, spending is also done on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, etc., Many candidates are now buying packages to send bulk messages on WhatsApp.

All of these expenses are incurred up to the end of the campaign, i.e., 28th November till 5 pm, 48 hours before the polling. However, the real expenditure, which is not only illegal but also a threat to democracy, takes place in the last 48 hours before the polling.

Candidates divide their potential voters into various categories. The first category consists of voters who will certainly vote for him or her. The second category is undecided voters, who may or may not vote for him. The third category of voters are those who sell their vote for money to the highest bidder.

In some cases, entire localities or villages fix a rate to be paid for voting in favour of a particular party/candidate. Everyone, including the authorities, knows about this practice, but no one can do anything to stop it.

The next crucial phase is the distribution of money. Local workers visit each household with the voters' list. They check with the inmates about the number of voters in their household and pay a specific amount for each vote. For example, they may pay Rs 10,000 for five votes (an average of Rs 2,000 per vote), requesting the inmates to vote for a particular candidate.

This ugly practice of purchasing votes has become so common in some areas that the voters themselves ask for more money. In the last Munugode by-elections, a few thousand voters were paid up to Rs 7,000 for each vote. This practice is not confined to a single party/candidate. Almost all candidates of major parties indulge in it, albeit to varying degrees.

The amount of money distributed on the night before the elections is at least five times the money spent on the entire electioneering. For example, if a candidate pays Rs 2,000 to buy a vote, then he/she spends at least Rs 4-5 crore in just one single night. The amount increases if the voters insist on more money.

In addition, the local leaders who execute these activities charge a premium for their services. The local police and other officials are also managed.

The expenditure continues even after the beginning of polling. The candidate needs to arrange free transportation of voters from their locality to the polling booth and back. Although this is not permitted by the authorities, candidates of almost all parties do it.

In addition to the expenses mentioned above, candidates also spend about Rs 5-10 lakh on their polling booth agents. If there are 250 polling booths in a constituency, then a candidate will hire two people to work as their agent in each booth. These agents work in two shifts, from 6 am to 1 pm and from 1 pm to 5 pm. They are called the agent and reliever.

Many candidates hire experienced party workers as booth agents. These agents play a crucial role in managing the officials and agents of other parties after 3 pm. For example, if only 50 percent of the polling has been done at a polling booth by 3 pm, and there is a low possibility of a substantial increase in polling percentage by 5 pm, then the agent may try to manage the officials and other agents by offering to cast the leftover votes in favour of their candidate. In most cases, the agents are successful in doing so.

In other cases, the agents of rival parties may insist on sharing the votes. They bargain for a price, and everyone involved in the process gets paid. This is done with complete secrecy and silence, without drawing any attention from the other polling staff or security personnel deployed at the polling booth.

Many political parties groom their polling booth agents from the beginning. Some candidates also manage to get independent candidates to appoint their men as polling agents. In this way, some candidates can send 2-3 of their agents to each polling booth. This is done by spending huge amounts of money.

Impersonation of voters is another reality that exists in many constituencies of Hyderabad. Candidates of some leading parties gather information about voters who have gone abroad or will not be present on election day. A separate booth-wise list is prepared. Fake IDs are prepared, and on polling day, the impersonators cast these votes in the early 2-3 hours, when polling staff is in a hurry to clear the rush. Such impersonators are paid Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 per vote, and on average, at least 1,000 such votes are cast in each constituency.

The spending spree of candidates ends with the conclusion of the polling process. If a candidate wins, then they consider the entire spending as an investment and later explore ways to recover it with profits. The losers enter into a depression for a few weeks, counting the total amount they have wasted on electioneering. Most of the losers never admit that they were rejected or not accepted by the voters. Instead, they blame their loss on the huge amount of money spent by their rival.

In this electoral saga, the voters should be the heroes - the decision-makers. However, the current state paints them as mere commodities, available for the right price. As we reflect on the state of our democracy, one can't help but wonder: Is the essence of democracy being overshadowed by the weight of the wallet?

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