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India’s General Election Projected to be World’s Most Expensive at Over $14 Billion

India's General Election Projected to be World's Most Expensive at Over $14 Billion

Despite Scrapping of Electoral Bonds, Concerns Over ‘Dirty Money’ Persist

In what is anticipated to be the globe’s most expensive electoral event, India’s upcoming general election is estimated to surpass $14 billion in expenditure. This revelation comes amidst the recent decision by the Indian Supreme Court to abolish the electoral bonds system, prompting renewed scrutiny on the financing of political campaigns in the world’s largest democracy.

The projected expenditure for the elections, slated for April and May this year, is expected to exceed 1.2 trillion rupees ($14.4 billion), as indicated by N Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi, renowned for monitoring political spending. This staggering amount surpasses the funds expended during the US presidential and congressional races in 2020.

The electoral bonds scheme, introduced in 2017 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, allowed donors, including corporations, to purchase bonds from state-controlled banks to financially support political parties anonymously. However, the system faced legal challenges from opposition members and civil society organizations, citing concerns over corruption, money laundering, and the lack of transparency regarding party funding sources.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling deeming the electoral bonds unconstitutional, experts remain wary of the significant role money plays in Indian elections, with unaccounted cash often influencing voter behavior. According to Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, untraceable cash transactions significantly impact electoral outcomes, highlighting the importance of financial resources in securing votes.

The projected expenditure for the 2024 Indian elections far surpasses the costs incurred during the previous general elections in 2019, where candidates collectively spent approximately 600 billion rupees ($7.2 billion). The surge in spending is attributed to various factors, including the expansion of social media and publicity campaigns, increased travel expenses, and the larger electorate size.

However, tracing unofficial payments remains a challenge, with widespread reports of illegal practices, including the distribution of cash and gifts to voters during electoral campaigns. The Election Commission of India imposes spending limits on candidates, yet enforcing compliance proves difficult amidst rampant violations.

Despite the federal government’s allocation of funds for election administration, a significant portion of campaign expenditure is shouldered by political parties and candidates. Reports suggest that informal contributions, often undisclosed, constitute a substantial portion of campaign finances, undermining transparency and accountability in the electoral process.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as a prominent beneficiary of the electoral bonds scheme, receiving a substantial portion of contributions. Although the BJP holds alternative sources of funding, concerns persist regarding the potential resurgence of unaccounted cash donations following the abolition of electoral bonds.

While the Supreme Court’s decision was hailed by some as a step towards transparency, others caution against the continued influence of illicit cash donations on political financing. With allegations of bribery and corruption looming large, experts emphasize the urgent need for stringent regulations to safeguard the integrity of India’s democratic process.

As the nation gears up for what promises to be a historic electoral showdown, the debate over campaign finance reform intensifies, underscoring the imperative for comprehensive measures to curb the influence of ‘dirty money’ in Indian politics.

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