It takes five million workers to pull off India’s election. Shreya Roy Chowdhury and Mridula Chari bring you their stories in a series called The Silent Army.

From April 25 till May 9, the Congress candidate in South Delhi, Vijender Singh, and his team consumed 1,485 plates of pakoda, or fried snacks.

Like all candidates contesting the 2019 general election, Singh, a professional boxer, was required to disclose his daily campaign expenditure to the Election Commission of India, detailing how much he spent on food, vehicles, chairs, loudspeakers and other campaign paraphernalia. Every paper cup used must be accounted for and the expenses made public.

Bharatiya Janata Party’s Ramesh Bidhuri, incumbent MP of South Delhi, did not disclose what exactly he ate but on April 27 he spent Rs 2.25 lakh on a “catering contract”. The Aam Aadmi Party’s Raghav Chadha provided daily expenses on food, but listed them under “office catering” without giving specifics. But Singh informed the poll body that on three of those 15 days, his team changed the menu, ordering “bread pakoda” instead of their staple, “pakoda mix”, batter-fried vegetables. Both Chadha and Singh needed Thar jeeps to campaign and Bidhuri spent Rs 1,500 a day on average on his social media campaign.

Such elaborate accounting is intended to help the election commission keep track of every candidate’s campaign spending and ensure they do not exceed the cap of Rs 70 lakh. To do this, thousands of government accountants and finance officers are deputed to work under returning officers who conduct the election. There is an assistant expenditure observer, who may have an accounts team working under them, for each Assembly segment in a parliamentary constituency. An expenditure observer, usually a member of the Indian Revenue Service, is brought from another state to oversee the process.

According to the poll body, 2,930 accounting teams and 3,818 assistant expenditure observers were deployed for the 2014 election. The figures for the 2019 election will be released only after it is over.

South Delhi covers 10 Assembly segments and each had an assistant expenditure observer. Ashok Kumar from the finance ministry’s Controller General of Accounts kept an eye on expenses throughout the constituency, while Himanshu Bhushan Parida from the communication ministry’s Controller General of Communication Accounts consolidated the records. Finally, there was Sudheesh NG, deputy controller of accounts with the Directorate of Health Services, to coordinate all their activities.

All seven of Delhi’s constituencies voted on May 12, but expenditure observers stayed on. They will submit another round of accounts after the results are declared on May 23 as expenditure on polling and counting days needs to be added as well. The books will finally be settled 30 days after the results are declared.

Shadow observation

Despite the ample quantities of pakoda involved, Singh seems to have run the most modest campaign of the three main candidates in South Delhi. His pre-polling expenditure, inspected last on May 10, came to Rs 12.93 lakh, less than half of Bidhuri’s Rs 26.95 lakh, including Rs 2.63 lakh spent on “ad material” in the week ending April 30. But both of them and the remaining 24 candidates were beaten by Chaddha, who spent Rs 32.63 lakh, including Rs 5 lakh paid to a social media expert on April 30.

The expenditure observers know better than to rely solely on disclosures by the candidates. Field units are deployed to gather evidence of resources used on the ground. Video surveillance teams in each Assembly segment record chairs, tables, loudspeakers, banners and other material used at public meetings and rallies. The tapes are reviewed by video-viewing teams, whose reports are handed over to the expenditure committees. Similarly, the media certification and media monitoring committees forward advertisements they see in print, on television or elsewhere. Finally, expenditure observers are kept informed about permissions granted through the centralised online system for the use of specific cars and for rallies or advertising on municipal space.

Proof of expenses thus gathered is recorded in the “shadow observation register” for each candidate. The expenditure observers have a “rate list” for most of the materials contestants are likely to use for campaigning with the minimum cost for each. “We looked at the rates around us and in the neighbouring constituencies to decide the rates,” said Sudheesh. “The political parties had been asked to give suggestions too but they didn’t.”

The rate list mentions the cost of hiring a car – depending on the make – a bus or an autorickshaw for a day, of hiring floodlights, ceiling fans, generator sets and plasma televisions. The going rate for “priests with pooja materials” is Rs 552 “per visit” but Bidhuri paid Rs 2,600 on April 23, the day he filed his nomination. A “dhanush ban”, or a bow and arrow, costs Rs 221 although none of the three main candidates appear to have used one. AAP has abandoned the broom, the party’s election symbol, which costs Rs 20 per piece according to the rate list. In 2014, the party’s candidates had bought brooms in bulk. An elephant can be hired for Rs 5,000 per day and a horse for Rs 2,500.

The rate list does not mention social media even when it has clearly replaced text message packs and the average room tariff at a five star hotel is pegged at just Rs 5,000 before tax.

The observers match the candidate’s disclosures with their own findings, compiled in the shadow register. The two books are reconciled during inspection – there are three rounds of inspection before polling.

“There is usually a gap – we are not able to get everything – but all the expenses that we have in the shadow register must also show in theirs,” said Sudheesh. Also, they cannot claim to have paid less for an item than the amount assigned to it in the rate list. “Even if they claim they got a samosa for Re 1, we will still add Rs 5 – as per the list – to their accounts,” added Sudheesh.

All candidates are asked to open a separate bank account for election expenditure. They may use their own funds, receive money from the party or accept donations.

‘Very hectic’

South Delhi’s observers spent the three weeks from the filing of nominations to the polling day calculating the cost of chairs, caps, garlands, billboards and newspaper advertisements without a break. They had two desks and two computers to begin with although they got more later. They worked through weekends because many candidates held public meetings over weekends when their constituents would be free.

“We could use more resources and a day off in a week or, at least, in a fortnight,” said Ashok Kumar, 47.

His son wrote the notoriously difficult medical entrance test on May 5 and he could not drop him to the examination centre.

“This work is time-bound and any laxity would lead to immediate suspension,” said Sudheesh, 52. “It got very hectic.”

It is usually hectic even at his regular workplace, the directorate of health services, where his section, responsible for buying medicine and equipment for government hospitals, is short-staffed.

Parida, 45, and Kumar are both part of audit teams. They do not create or reconcile accounts, but audit those prepared by others and recommend better ways of doing them. In South Delhi, they were doing “just the opposite”, said Kumar.

Sudheesh NG in South Delhi. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

In spite of the work they put in, the observers are sceptical about the system’s ability to trace all the money that goes into a campaign. “We can only capture what comes to us,” said Sudheesh.

A lot of the election activity does not. The video surveillance teams are deployed only for scheduled events and the observers are given “expenditure plans” by candidates.

“Only flying squads and static surveillance teams are really in a position to detect corruption,” Sudheesh said, referring to enforcers of the poll body’s directions on the ground.

Every constituency also has a district expenditure monitoring committee and committee on “release of cash” to decide what to do with the money seized by surveillance teams. But allegations of corruption are ultimately examined by the Income Tax Department.

Most campaign programmes in South Delhi, one observer pointed out, were of “nukkad sabha” variety, meetings on street corners, which made both shadow observation and inspection of the books simpler. But there were a few rallies and “star campaigners” – picked by political parties to support their candidates across constituencies – to complicate bookkeeping.

There were joint rallies, for one, and their cost was shared by all the candidates involved. On May 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Ramlila Maidan which was attended by all seven of the party’s candidates in Delhi. They will all share the cost, said Sudheesh.

It does not matter if the candidate speaks at such events, but they must be on the stage. “Chehera dikhna chahiya, bas,” he said. He should show his face, that is all.

Similarly, the cost of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati’s rally at the same venue on May 10 was split among all the party’s candidates in Delhi.

A few days before polling, a flying squad informed the expenditure observers about a car with a Haryana licence plate bearing campaign stickers for the BJP and Modi, who is not a candidate in Delhi. “We do not know how many of these cars were approved and where all they went,” said Sudheesh. “They may have been paid for by the party; there is no cap on a party’s expenditure.”

Read more in the series:

The Silent Army: Behind India’s election are five million workers. This series brings you their stories

The Silent Army: In Arunachal, election staff are chosen on their ability to walk – for days

The Silent Army: In Maharashtra, a day in the life of a district election control room

The Silent Army: Meet the flying squads that are enforcing EC’s model code of conduct on the ground

The Silent Army: How 6 Arunachal officials travelled 2 days to open a poll booth for only 1 vote

The Silent Army: From inflammatory speeches to rugs at rallies, EC videographers shoot it all

The Silent Army: When it comes to monitoring parties’ social media campaigns, EC guidelines flounder

The Silent Army: For two lakh CRPF jawans, election time means a discovery of India