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India election

BJP war chest gives it a big edge reaching Indian voters

The ruling party eyes second term as marathon election nears its end

BJP supporters hold masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi before a rally in Kolkata on May 16. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

NEW DELHI -- With the seven-stage Indian general election drawing to a close Sunday, it has emerged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cash-rich Bharatiya Janata Party dominated political advertising on digital platforms such as Google and Facebook, far outspending rivals.

The BJP is India's richest political party, according to a recent study by an independent watchdog group. This gives it the upper hand in the sprawling 39-day general election, the outcome of which will be clear when the last ballots are counted on May 23.

On digital media, BJP accounted for more than 60% of the total 274 million rupees ($3.9 million) spent on adverting with Google, YouTube and other partner properties since Feb. 19, according to a transparency report published by the internet search giant this week.

India's ruling party shelled out 171 million rupees, followed by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a regional party in the south, at 41 million rupees; and the main opposition Indian National Congress at 27 million rupees.

Ahead of the general election that began on April 11, both Google and Facebook rolled out tools to bring greater transparency to online political advertising. According to Facebook's Ad Library, a searchable database, the BJP spent nearly 40 million rupees on political ads from February through May 11, compared with 13 million rupees spent by the Congress party during the same period.

Modi is campaigning hard for a second five-year term in the nationwide polls for 543 seats in the lower house of parliament, and not just on digital platforms. Party ads on radio and TV prominently feature the prime minister, highlighting his welfare polices for the poor, farmers and other disadvantaged groups.

In the previous general election in 2014, the BJP, then in opposition, was also at the forefront of social media campaigning and was able to sway many tech-savvy young voters in its favor. It won 282 seats -- 10 more than needed to form a government, becoming the first party in three decades to win an outright majority.

Analysts say the fact that the BJP is flush with cash allows it to mount a more effective campaign than poorer opposition parties. "The BJP has mobilized a lot of resources," said Narayan Bareth, a political analyst based in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, pointing out that its rivals are unable to match it, financially or organizationally, to expand their reach.

The money parties raise helps them catch voters' attention through advertising and personal interactions -- rallies and the like. The final phase of voting on Sunday has 59 seats up for grabs in states such as Punjab, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

Money translates to influence with voters -- sometimes taking the form of cash or other handouts -- in hard-fought district-level campaigning. A statement by the Election Commission of India earlier this week said illicit donations of cash, liquor, narcotics and precious metals worth 34.3 billion rupees had been seized across the country this election season. It did not say which parties had violated the rules.

Tamil Nadu, a state in India's south, topped the list with total seizures worth 9.5 billion rupees, while Gujarat, Modi's home state, came in second with 5.5 billion rupees.

In January, a study by the Association of Democratic Reforms found that the BJP's total income in the financial year ending March 2018 was 10.27 billion rupees. Out of this, 5.53 billion rupees came from "unknown sources," or 80% of the total income of six major parties from such sources.

Under Indian law, parties are not required to reveal the name of donors who give less than 20,000 rupees, or of those who donate via "electoral bonds." Known sources of income include contributions from supporters whose details are declared to the Election Commission, cash raised from sale of fixed and unfixed assets, membership fees, and bank interest.

The Congress party's total income in the same year totaled close to 2 billion rupees, including 1.2 billion rupees from unknown sources, according to the association. The group analyzed the major parties' income tax returns and donation statements filed with the Election Commission. "The sources [of their funding] remain largely unknown," the association said.

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