2024 LS polls pegged as costliest ever, expenditure may touch ₹1.35 lakh crore: Expert

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2024 LS polls pegged as costliest ever, expenditure may touch ₹1.35 lakh crore: Expert
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Kolkata, The 2024 Lok Sabha elections are on track to break past records and become the most expensive electoral event in the world, according to a poll expert. The estimated expenditure is expected to reach a staggering Rs 1.35 lakh crore, more than double the Rs 60,000 crore spent in 2019, claimed N Bhaskara Rao, who chairs the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), a not-for-profit organisation, and has been tracking election spending for 35 years.
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Rao stated that this comprehensive expenditure encompasses all spending, direct or indirect, related to polls, including that by political parties and organisations, candidates, the government, and the Election Commission.

With the BJP vying for a third consecutive term under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership, industry observers have noted the party's dominant presence in campaigns, irrespective of the mediums used for publicity.

In an interview with PTI, Rao said he revised the initial expenditure estimate from Rs 1.2 lakh crore to Rs 1.35 lakh crore, factoring in electoral bond disclosures and accounting for all election-related expenses.

"Initially, we estimated the expenditure at Rs 1.2 lakh crore. However, post the electoral bond stake disclosures, we've revised the figure to Rs 1.35 lakh crore," he said, adding that this estimate covered spending that took place 3-4 months before voting dates were announced.

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Rao emphasised that money flowed into the process through various means beyond electoral bonds.

Recent observations by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) revealed a "significant lack of transparency" in political funding in India.

From 2004-05 to 2022-23, approximately 60 per cent of contributions to the nation's six major political parties, totalling Rs 19,083 crore, came from undisclosed sources, including funds from electoral bonds, it claimed.

The ADR has, however, refrained from providing any cumulative expenditure projections for the ensuing Lok Sabha elections.

"Pre-election activities are integral to campaign spending by parties and candidates, covering political rallies, transportation, hiring of workers including field and influencers and even the controversial horse-trading of political leaders," Rao said.

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The Election Commission's budget to manage the polls is expected to be 10-15 per cent of the total expenditure projection, he added.

With a voter base of 96.6 crore, per-voter spending is estimated at around Rs 1,400. This surpasses the expenditure of the 2020 US elections, which stood at USD 14.4 billion or Rs 1.2 lakh crore, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonprofit organisation based in Washington, DC, that tracks and publishes data on campaign finance and lobbying.

Media campaigns across various platforms are predicted to account for 30 per cent of the total election spend, Rao said.

"While visible spending is concentrated in the 45-day direct campaign period, the actual expenditure far exceeds this amount," he added.

Parties and candidates often find ways to circumvent spending restrictions imposed by the Model Code of Conduct. In 2019, the CMS reported that the BJP accounted for 45 per cent of the total spending of Rs 60,000 crore, a share that Rao believes will increase in the 2024 elections.

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In his latest book, 'Next Big Game Changer of Elections', Rao highlighted the growing reliance on 'money power' over ideology in Indian politics.

He lamented the transformation of election campaigns from ideology-driven movements to "jingoistic apparatuses" that leverage demographics to create divisive tactics and polarisation.

Rao identified six key trends in the ongoing general election -- prolonged pre-poll activities, affluent candidates dominating the fray, the 'Mandi' phenomenon of political crossovers, manipulation through various channels, lack of fair play, and the power dynamics favouring incumbents.

As digital campaigning gains prominence, political parties are engaging professional agencies for higher brand recall.

Amit Wadhwa, CEO of leading advertising agency Dentsu Creative, said that there has been a significant surge in digital campaigning this year.

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He said political parties were behaving like corporate brands and were engaging professional agencies for higher brand recall.

"With the inclusion of both direct and indirect digital campaigns, this medium's footprint is poised to become the mainstay, potentially outshining all others in this election. Television, digital platforms, and outdoor advertising are ahead, relegating print to fourth place," he projected, based on his observations.

A top ad agency official said voters unaffiliated with any political ideology, referred to as 'fence-sitters,' are the primary targets of the intense visual campaigns launched by parties across various media.

Social media giants like Meta and Google play significant roles in political campaigns, he said.

Advertisement professional Jadavendra Sen categorised advertisements into three types - Above the Line (ATL) activities, which include outdoor, television, and print; Below the Line (BTL) activities, encompassing wall writings and posters; and Through the Line (TTL) activities, which involve third-party like influencers and digital platforms.

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Sen highlighted that during the initial voting phase in North Bengal, there was a notable demand for flex advertising.

He anticipated that the intensity of visual campaigning would escalate with every passing election phase.

In response to the spending budget this year, agencies associated with leading national parties like BJP and Congress did not offer any comments but acknowledged the increase had been significant.

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