As India passes the halfway mark of the general election, Narendra Modi’s personal popularity remains high – bumped up to 43%, according to one study, thanks to the optics of the Balakot air-strikes.
Such effective campaign messaging, however, would be impossible without funds, and the BJP’s funding advantage has been the most under-examined factor in this election.
The ruling party’s ability to spend on publicity – supported by a host of unofficial or secretive efforts – has sharply tilted the playing field, though at the cost of legal and ethical norms of transparency.
What they have
It begins simply with the power to raise funds from private donations.
According to the elections think-tank, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), in the financial year of 2017-18, India’s seven largest political parties declared a combined income of Rs 1,397.90 crore. Of this, the BJP alone received Rs 1,027.339 crore – a whopping 73.5% of that income share.
Almost all of the BJP’s income was from donations – Rs 989 crore out of the Rs 1,027 crore total income.
The Congress, in second place, raised about Rs 143 crore in voluntary contributions.
To put this in perspective: Voluntary donations to the BJP were worth 2.5 times more than the total income, from all sources, of the next seven largest parties put together.
Where it came from
More than 50% of all party funds were donations from ‘unknown sources’. In part, this is due to the new system of electoral bonds, introduced by Arun Jaitley in 2017, which allow donors – including foreign entities – to remain anonymous, regardless of the scale of their donation. The donations are also tax-free.
Three things you need to know about electoral bonds:
- In FY 2017-’18, the total value of electoral bonds purchased was Rs 215 crore. How much were the donations to the BJP? Rs 210 crore. That’s almost 98%.
- As elections approach, electoral bonds have gone through the roof. Until January 2019, the total value of electoral bonds issued by the RBI was Rs 1,407.
But in just the first two weeks of March 2019, anonymous donors bought bonds worth Rs 1,366 crore.
- These anonymous donors are not regular citizens. Of the total number of electoral bonds bought, 99.8% had a value of either Rs 10 lakh or Rs 1 crore. These anonymous donors are the super-wealthy, corporate business or possibly foreign entities.
Arguments exist both for and against electoral bonds, regarding how they influence political patronage. At this point, however, the system is playing almost entirely to the benefit of the ruling party.
Where are they spending on?
The US Presidential election and the Brexit referendum in 2016 revealed how voter data and targeted social-media campaigns could swing unexpected victories. The BJP are currently expending their wealth in a bid to replicate these successes.
To begin with, as the ruling party, it gets to use government advertising as a proxy. By October 2018, in four and a half years, the Modi government spent as much on ads as the Manmohan Singh government spent in its ten years in power.
Out of its total expenditure of nearly Rs 5,000 crore, Rs 2,136.39 crores was spent on advertising in the print media. Rs 2,211.11 crore was spent on electronic media.
In FY 2017-18, election propaganda was the primary expense of the BJP – it spent Rs 567.43 crore that year, whereas the Congress spent Rs 29.22 crore.
Continuing on this pathway, between February 20 and April 24, 2019, the BJP spent just under Rs 6 crore on political ads on Google platforms, according to the firm’s transparency report. This was nearly ten times as much as Congress spending on the same platforms.
On Facebook, the BJP officially spent Rs 1.32 crore between early February and April 20. While this is higher than any other party’s expenditure, this figure still conceals some other publicity initiatives. Unofficial BJP Facebook pages, such ‘Bharat ke Mann ki Baat’, ‘Nation with NaMo’ and ‘My First Vote for Modi’ cumulatively spent Rs 4.50 crore in the same period.
The organisation behind these Facebook pages is called the Association of Billion Minds. An investigation by the Huffington Post revealed that this shadowy firm was created exclusively to support the BJP.
The firm itself posted a rising revenue of Rs 23.5 crore in 2017/18. The Election Commission has not investigated if these were using party or government funds.
In November last year, ahead of the assembly polls in four states, the BJP was India’s leading brand in TV advertising. It aired its ads 22,099 times, which is 10,000 times more than the next brand on the list – Netflix.
Again, this kind of spending conceals under-the-radar operations, like the cable channel NaMo TV – which broadcasts continuous footage of Modi’s speeches and interviews – and which the BJP denied knowledge of for several weeks before finally admitting it was sponsored by its IT Cell.
Beyond that, state channels like Doordarshan – an ‘autonomous broadcaster’ whose charter commits it to objective reporting – were giving the BJP 160 hours of coverage in the month of March; double that given to the rival Congress.