In July 2016, I spoke with N. Gopalaswami, former Chief Election Commissioner of India (2006-2009), at his residence nestled amidst a quiet street in central Chennai. For the greater part of an hour, we discussed why election spending in his home state of Tamil Nadu rises sharply from one election cycle to the next. Gopalaswami opines that campaign spending is highest in states that have performed particularly well following the liberalization of the Indian economy (1991). This recent boost in economic activity, he avers, augments their capacity for rent-seeking in political office, which incentivizes candidates to spend generously to win the election and reap its rewards. Although he pegs the average campaign expenditure of major party candidates at roughly ₹5 crore ($750,000) per assembly segment, he concedes that this figure may be on the low end of the scale and accepts that average spending may very well tip the ₹8 crore mark ($1,200,000).
When I discussed the matter with leading figures of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), or Liberation Panthers Party, as well as journalists who have covered Tamil Nadu elections for decades, both provided estimates that are noticeably higher than Gopalaswami, yet acknowledged that any such figure amounts to little more than educated guesswork. VCK Deputy General Secretary J. Gowtham Sannah breaks campaign finance into three levels: centralized spending managed by party executives, constituency-level spending managed by party candidates, and cadre-level spending overseen by local leaders (municipalities, city corporations, panchayats, etc.). With money pouring into campaigns from disparate sources, Sannah cautions that accurate figures are impossible to tabulate, but nonetheless estimates that major party candidates most often spent upwards of ₹8 crore per constituency in the recent state assembly election.
When I discussed the topic with journalists familiar with Tamil Nadu elections, they surmise that spending varies markedly based upon party affiliation, candidate wealth, and the competitiveness of the given constituency. One of my interlocutors, a contributing writer to Frontline magazine and The Hindu newspaper, cautions that average figures are misleading due to the vast spectrum of electoral spending. While some campaigns may cost as little as ₹3 crore ($445,000), a select few may tip the ₹100 crore mark, referring to those of major party bosses. The question boils down to how much money is required to remain viable in a given constituency as well as an electoral system increasingly flush with cash? Drawing upon their observations and fieldwork in the recent election, both individuals accepted ₹10+ crore as a reasonable figure exceeded by many, if not most, major party candidates.
But, of course, while “money power” may be effective in some regards, this need not imply that it is efficient. In fact, there are leakages at every level. Citing a Tamil proverb, N. Gopalaswami chuckles as he compares the disbursement of campaign funds to pouring a spoonful of honey into someone’s palm, naturally some honey will seep over the sides of their hand and they will lick off that small portion. The same occurs as election funds pass down into the party structure, accounting for further leakage at each step along the way.