In an earlier post, I discussed the financial pinch of electoral competition, noting that aggregate campaign spending has risen from one election cycle to the next. This trend poses a pair questions pertinent to my research: why does expenditure continue to rise and how does this impact the democratic participation of minority parties such as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), or Liberation Panthers Party, whose primarily Dalit (ex-Untouchable) support base lacks affluent leaders as well as direct connection to key sources of election finance (i.e., media conglomerates, industrial and corporate houses, real estate barons)?
The VCK entered electoral politics at the turn of the millennium. Prior to its democratic transition, it operated as a social movement that utilized pressure politics to advocate minority concerns. In many ways, the failure of this paradigm coupled with a strong state response to ‘radical’ social movements placed VCK leaders in a predicament by the late 1990s – if they were to maintain their present program, their movement may have faced an outright ban from the state government. By 1998, movement leaders confronted a critical decision: enter electoral politics and convert their sizeable support base into a vote-bank to legitimize their protest in the eyes of state authorities and augment their leverage with existing political parties or, alternatively, transition into underground politics. Upon internal deliberation, the party entered electoral democracy in 1999.
In contrast to most other parties, VCK leaders launched their careers in the public sector, a common avenue for social mobility afforded to Dalits through affirmative action programs and employment quotas. Whereas corporate, real estate, and business leaders fill the ranks of their rivals, most VCK leaders forfeited modest careers in government service in order to enter electoral politics (government employees are not permitted direct political engagement). Whereas VCK Chairman Thol. Thirumaavalavan, who is trained as a lawyer, worked as an entry level forensic scientist in a government lab, the party’s two general secretaries worked as a teller in a state-owned bank and as a government engineer in a coal mining facility.
This past summer, I inquired about the financial strain of electoral competition when I spoke with VCK Chairman Thol. Thirumaavalavan. As per what appears to have become a custom, I interviewed the VCK leader as he commuted from one appointment to the next… the sole instance when I welcomed the notorious traffic gridlock on Indian roadways as it afforded more time for our conversation. Thirumaavalavan surmises that election spending continues to increase due to three primary factors. First, he corroborates the statement of N. Gopalaswami, a former Chief Election Commission that I cited in my previous blog post, that the increased capacity for rent-seeking in political office has raised the stakes of electoral competition. Further, he acknowledges that political parties have increasingly turned to wealthy “crorepati” candidates who are willing to spend generously on their own campaigns, launching something of an electoral arms race within competitive constituencies. Finally, he opines that the growth of smaller outfits and minority parties such as his own has fragmented the traditional vote-banks of established parties, thereby upping the ante during election campaigns as these parties struggle to retain support that they had previously taken for granted. In a sense, VCK organizers perceive rising electoral expenditure as a predicament partly of their own making, a result of parties such as theirs having splintered existing vote banks and raised the stakes of electoral competition. This has, according to my interlocutors, rendered “money power” more important than ever.