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So much money!

The US is holding its most expensive US elections ever. Of course, each election tends to be more expensive than the last one so that isn't a surprise, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

world Updated: Oct 25, 2008 23:35 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

The US is holding its most expensive US elections ever. Of course, each election tends to be more expensive than the last one so that isn't a surprise. But the Center for Responsive Politics, the best source for finding out whose getting money from whom and how much, indicates the 2008 campaign will cost about $ 5.3 billion.

This tends to get squeals of protest from everyone. So much money just to select a bunch of politicians - aargh. There must be a much better way to spend that much money, et cetera.

I have to differ. All in all, the US election system costs a bit but it is actually quite a bargain.

First, one this is several election campaigns. The presidential election is the biggest chunk -- the Center says that will be about $ 2.4 billion this year. But this includes a complex 50-state primary elections held by both the leading parties.

After that comes the actual presidential battle between the two candidates. In every presidential election the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, a fair number of governorships and a whole host of sheriffs, judges, municipal commissioners and dogcatchers also come up for vote.

Second, let us keep even the total cost in perspective. The US spent about $ 6 billion on Halloween this year. In other words, the average American spent more on kiddie costumes and orange candy this year than he did on choosing virtually his entire political structure. Even the presidential election, for all the sound fury and media attention it generates, costs about the same as Coca Cola and Pepsi each spend on advertising and marketing their products. This is an 11 or 12 trillion dollar economy -- they elect their president for peanuts. It is actually amazing how little money is spent; a reflection of the amount of volunteer work that goes into campaigning I guess.

Finally, what is most impressive about US campaign finance is that it is so remarkably transparent. The US system long ago recognised that you can't keep money out politics. What you need to be doing is to make sure that flow of money is visible, accounted for and regulated.

In India the system is wholly opaque. Ratan Tata, the industrialist, has long advocated that the Indian political system adopt the transparency that we see in the US. He publicly announces how much he is sending to each party every election. An aspiring Indian parliamentarian told me of her dilemma,"I've calculated that running for a parliamentary seat will cost me about Rs 25 to 40 million a month. The party, still caught up in Gandhian ideals that you should march around with a stick and loincloth, gives us only Rs 2.5 million rupees every month. To make up the difference, you have to financially independent or plain corrupt."