| A shopkeeper displays two-inch-long kites featuring AB Vajpayee, LK Advani and the BJP symbol in Amritsar. (Reuters)
New Delhi, May 2: Amid the bustle of wares, traders, hustlers and over-laden cycle-rickshaws that over the last two centuries have turned the lanes of Sadar Bazaar into a famous frieze of colours stand out a row of shops decked in the hues of this year’s elections.
Welcome to the great election bazaar. About three dozen shops that dot the lane connecting Sadar Chowk with the capital’s main trucking centre here are wholesale businesses specialising in election accessories.
Loads of stacked BJP flags vie for space with cartons of Congress buntings sporting Sonia Gandhi’s face above a space left vacant for the candidate’s name to be printed. Giant elephant stickers sporting Mayavati’s puckered face, purses with Vote for Mulayam Singh embossed, audio-cassettes of Vajpayee’s poetry, Laloo Prasad Yadav car stickers … you name it and the shops have it.
“We send readymade and made-to-order election goods to all parts of the country by trucks and railway coaches for all kinds of elections — Parliament, Assembly or panchayat,” said Gulshan Khanna, a second generation poll materials wholesaler. The shops here have sold campaign material worth about Rs 150-200 crore in a good year.
But consignments have been few and scattered this year compared to last winter’s Assembly polls. “Business is down 90 per cent… we think it’s because of the big business houses who have started backing individual politicians,” said Khanna. “They have got the stuff manufactured and sent directly leaving us out in the cold.”
Major industrial houses have long been involved in funding political parties. But now they are increasingly seen as getting involved in spending on behalf of favourites. Rising costs and the funds surge for individual candidates are pushing up poll spend.
Elections 2004 are expected to cost Rs 5,000 crore, thrice the amount spent in the 1999 general elections, according to an estimate by the New Delhi- based Centre for Media Studies (CMS).
The Election Commission limits expenses to Rs 25 lakh a candidate in the 543 constituencies that make up the Lok Sabha. But CMS estimates that at least 100 key constituencies will see individual candidates spending more than Rs 1 crore.
Smaller parties are the obvious losers in this uneven battle and their abysmal share of shelf space in these poll stores says it all. Said Nationalist Trinamul Congress leader Dinesh Trivedi: “We have long been campaigning for more transparency in election spending and better auditing… it hasn’t happened as yet.”
Analysts believe most major parties have found ways of getting past the mandatory audit of their spending by Nirvachan Sadan.
The bulk of the money is spent on meetings, workers, mode of travel — both the traditional jeeps and cars as well as the now increasingly popular aircraft and helicopters — printing of posters and booklets and gifts to key voters and leaders.
“We make up the small change in the entire business … but even that was big numbers till this elections,” said Khanna.
Dealers here don’t blame the publicity whizkids of the two top parties — the BJP’s IIT-educated Ajay Singh and Congress’s older Sam Pitroda — for the bad business.
They may have turned campaigning in metropolises into hi-tech affairs with SMS and sneak phone-ins, but the traders argue that election accessories churned out by them are still relevant in “the real India — the lakhs of villages and small towns where most voters live”.
Anil Bhai Rakhiwale, the biggest dealer in election material, who his rivals estimate does business up to Rs 40 crore in a “good year”, said: “What we design sets the trend — last time it was bindis with political leaders’ faces which proved a hit.
“It’s just that we are being edged out of the business in these high-profile polls… maybe we will live on for the smaller elections. After all, there are elections happening every three of four months somewhere or the other in this country.”