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Democracy on sale

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CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

Democracy is an expensive business. The United States had what arguably was the costliest election in its history in 2008 when half-dozen presidential candidates spent more than $1 billion (around Rs 4, 500 crores at that time) in the race to the White House. I say its history, because, as we shall see in a moment, democracy in India maybe a bigger extravaganza.

Right now, it appears that presidential election 2008 expenses will be small beer compared to presidential election 2012, which promises to be an even pricier proposition. Word in the political salons is that Barack Obama may be first billion dollar badshah in terms of money raised to run - or re-run - for the White House. His campaign spent a staggering $750 million in 2008 and is expected to top it this time. Already, they have raked in more than $130 million for his re-election run, and he hasn't even begun stumping seriously.

Meantime, his putative rival Mitt Romney, campaign war chest fortified by a 2010 United States Supreme Court ruling that allows unlimited donation to political action committees (PACs), is burning up cash in the race to challenge Obama in November. A PAC that calls itself Restore Our Future spent millions of dollars on ad campaigns that destroyed Newt Gingrich at Romney's expense in Florida last week. They have plenty left in the bank, and now that the United States Supreme Court has lowered the bar, America's super-rich are lining up to pour money into the coffers of their favourite candidates.

All this would suggest that democracy is up for sale in America, but our virtuous prophets of the Indian proletariat should hold their judgment. If you think about it seriously, $1 billion or $2 billion or even $6 billion (which is the projected total for the entire 2012 election, including Congressional polls which take place simultaneously) isn't all that it's drummed up to be considering the length and expanse of the campaign. Imagine, this is an exercise that goes on for more than a year across a country that is four times the size of India;$6 billion for a 300 million population means an expense of $20 (about Rs 1, 000) per head, which is the going rate for a vote on election-day in India.

Seriously, we have a good case to make for being the most expensive electoral democracy on earth. Any MP worth his seat will tell you that you need at least Rs 5 crore (about $1 million at today's rate) to even make a stab at a parliamentary seat. Each Lok Sabha seat has anywhere from two to four serious contenders - so anywhere from $2 million to $4 million per seat, and therefore, anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion for a 545-member Lok Sabha. And we haven't even counted the state assembly seats, not to speak of the local body polls for zilla parishad, corporation etc where aspirants pour in lakhs, usually in the hope of making crores.

On a recent trip to India, one neta candidly told me that the money involved in Indian politics is now so huge (physically), that it is now moved around in ambulances and helicopters, a far cry from the suitcase days of Harshad Mehta when I left India. He couldn't have made a better case for Indian democracy being on life support. Is that why traffic in India does not part way for ambulances?

At least the United States had the decency of making its electoral money grubbing transparent, although the recent court decision has opened the floodgates and made it hard to identify the moneybags. Still, you can see much of the money traffic on sites such as Opensecrets. org. The billions that our netas spend on elections is largely unaccounted black money. And much of this is spent in a short span of three or four weeks, unlike the months it takes for Americans to slow burn their cash.

The biggest expenses in India are for campaign material, gas, food and daily wages for workers, and the inevitable election-day payout - most of it paid in cash. In the United States, where election campaigns are long-drawn but lack the rough-and-tumble, dinand-dust of the cash-rich Indian exercise, the money is mostly sucked up by TV commercials.

Eventually though, a billion dollars, or even 10 billion, is a small price to pay for democracy. At least, we can feast on the pretense, or delusion, that we make our own destiny. Imagine a country with no election. Not a happy thought.

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