India’s upcoming general election will be the largest democratic event in history, with more than 814 million people entitled to vote to decide the country’s 16th government. This, however, is not the only record that will be broken when the world’s largest democracy goes to the polls. According to the Centre for Media Studies, Indian politicians will spend as much as $4.9 billion during the electoral contest, which will end in May. The estimate makes this year’s general election the second most expensive of all time, behind only the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign in which, according to the U.S. presidential commission, $7 billion was spent.
India’s electoral rules only allow candidates to spend $114,000 to contest parliamentary seats. With 543 seats available in India’s lower house, the total spent should amount to just below $62 million. But the actual costs of fighting an election are much higher, and a combination of fundraising (online and from the Indian diaspora), advertising costs and bribery contribute to the $4.9 billion estimate.
If the estimate is accurate, the 2014 general election will cost three times as much as India’s previous national vote in 2009. The increase can partly be accounted for by a rise in the costs of running an election. Mostly, however, the tripling in costs reflects the high stakes of this year’s election. After a decade in office, many are predicting an emphatic defeat for the incumbent Congress-led coalition. With the government likely to change hands, Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for the opposition BJP, began his campaign last year and has since blazed a trail across the country. The funds required to finance Modi’s long campaign have been amassed by a dedicated seven-member team. This small group, which includes Deepak Kanth a former London-based investment banker, have cast their net as far as Hong Kong and Singapore in the effort to source donations.
The sheer scale of the electoral exercise is unprecedented. Almost two thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people are eligible to vote – 100 million more than in 2009 – and 96% of these have already been equipped with electoral ID cards. In nine polling days spread across five weeks, the world’s largest electorate will visit 930,000 polling booths to cast their votes using 1.7 million electronic voting machines. 11 million personnel, including members of the army, will be deployed to assist with the elections, whilst a further 5.5 million civilians will be employed to manage the voting process.
The 2014 vote marks several major firsts for India. Thanks to a change newly available during the Delhi state elections last December, voters at the national level will now have the option of selecting “none of the above”, allowing them to reject parliamentary candidates for the first time. Observers will also be studying the impact of the youth vote and technology. 24 million voters aged 18 to 19 will be polling for the first time in an election in which social media and internet-based campaigning faces its first electoral test.
The enormous costs involved have given rise to many concerns. V.S. Sampath, India’s Chief Election Commissioner, told Reuters he was concerned about the growing influence of “money power” in the elections. Though India’s elections have a reputation for being free and fair, fundraising and spending is often opaque. According to the same Reuters report, in the last three years alone election authorities have seized a total of $32.65 million from politicians in the form of cash concealed in milk trucks, helicopters and even funeral vans. This year, officials will be determined to clamp down on these notorious money-in-envelopes practices.
Nonetheless, the 2014 general election will be one of the greatest milestones in India’s democratic history. Polling begins on April 7 and ends on May 12, with the final votes counted – and India’s next government decided – by May 16.