In the southern Indian state of Telangana, elections are all about who can shell out how much, revealing how the otherwise democratic process can be skewed towards the powerful.

In 2014, a candidate of a national party contesting a state legislative assembly seat in Telangana spent Rs 8.9 million on his campaign. He lost by nearly 2,500 votes and during a post-mortem of the polling, his party leaders in New Delhi blamed it on his miserly nature. “If only you had spent more, you would have won,” he was told.

Four years later, as the candidate gets set to contest from the same seat again, he is looking to raise at least Rs 40 million as he does not want to repeat his “mistake” of four years ago.

However, the Election Commission stipulates that a candidate in an assembly election can spend up to Rs 2.8 million while the figure for a Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) constituency is Rs 7 million. Politicians mock these limits as unrealistic, noting that even candidates for an election to the Hyderabad municipal corporation in 2016 spent up to Rs 20 million. And after the election is over, every winner declares that he or she spent within the limit. Thus their legislative innings starts with a lie.

The trend is common. Kodela Sivaprasad Rao, Speaker in the assembly of the neighboring state Andhra Pradesh, said in a television interview in 2016 that he spent Rs 115 million on his election from Satenapalli constituency in Guntur district. Even then, he won by just 924 votes. But a special court has asked Rao to appear before it this month in regard to his claim.

The contest in Telangana is expected to be tough with Congress, allied with the regional Telegu Desam Party, desperate to win ahead of the general election next year. The incumbent Telangana Rashtra Samithi-led government dissolved the State Assembly on September 6, nine months before its term was to end, to head for early elections that are now scheduled in December.

Breakdown of expenditure

Naturally, questions arise about how a candidate spends this obscene sum of money during the period of the election campaign, that roughly stretches to a month.

Sources from different political parties have said that a candidate needs a crowd to accompany him on his campaign trail, raise slogans and give out pamphlets. The current rate is around Rs 400 per head. And given that anything less than 200 people may look dismal in photos, this translates to at least Rs 80,000 per day. That means a staggering outlay of more than Rs 2.4 million (US$32,400) for a month.

Food for all these people works out to be another Rs 3 million if the menu also includes non-vegetarian food and liquor. Those who man the booths on polling day are also critical to the candidate’s election and therefore, at Rs 1,000 per head for around 1,200 supporters, it amounts to a future Rs 1.2 million.

Publicity material that includes party flags, hoardings, posters, pamphlets, printed t-shirts and caps for the cadres come to another Rs Rs 2.5 million. Though the party provides some of this material, often it’s not enough and the candidates look to buttress it with their own funds along with buying outdoor media space like billboards. A quality vehicle with a good sound system could cost around Rs 500,000 for the whole campaign period. But the amount doubles if the vehicle has been redesigned to take care of the candidate’s comforts, which is common. Then there is fuel cost for all vehicles for this work.

The candidate’s social media team that generally works over time ensuring a vibrant presence across platforms, takes away another Rs 100,000 to 200,000 depending on the team’s manpower.

The media component is a significant part of the balance sheet. Apart from the party paying individual TV channels and newspapers to ensure positive coverage, candidates cough up large amounts both to media management and individual reporters on the ground. The deal includes facilitating flattering reportage and significant on-air time for candidates along with negative stories on the principal opponents, costing a further Rs 5-6 million.

A senior leader who stood in 2014, said on condition of anonymity that one major media group harassed him and demanded Rs 2.5 million for favorable coverage. He was willing to settle for Rs 500,000, which the group didn’t accept and the deal fell through. The media house didn’t mention him on print or television in the campaign period.

Cash for vote

Notwithstanding any scruples, every candidate has to set aside a handsome amount to bribe voters ahead of the ballot. A victorious candidate in a Hyderabad constituency systematically targeted voters by wooing their associations, a source said. All caste associations in his constituency were given Rs 500,000, while close to 25 youth groups got a vehicle and Rs 200,000 each; and temples received Rs 50,000 each. Additionally, some resident welfare associations demanded new bore wells be dug – at a cost around Rs 300,000 – and even their buildings painted in exchange for residents’ votes.

These outlays are, of course, often camouflaged in the garb of donations to the political party and not reflected on the candidate’s books.

This time, parties said they plan to check voter loyalty with Aadhaar, India’s contested biometric-based digital identity program that was actually meant to weed out corruption. In return for cash for each vote, people will have to surrender their Aadhaar cards to party reps till the day of polling. That way, they won’t be able to sell their votes to another party.

This time, candidates in Telangana are unhappy that the poll coincides with three big Hindu festivals – Ganesh Chaturthi, Dussehra and Diwali – as that means also sponsoring pandals and more hefty handouts.

“During such social occasions, any number of local thugs will side up to you and tell you that he has 100 votes in his pocket and quote his price. You need to cross-check his claim and if it turns out to be even half true, you keep him happy with cash to get those 50-odd votes,” says a candidate who wished to stay unnamed.

This expenditure doesn’t even include what happens in many political parties, especially regional parties, where moneybags ‘buy’ the ticket to become candidates.