Elections can only be contested by the absolute rich, and even anti-status quo parties have learnt the game this time. The case of NA 131
Hugging a pole in NA-131, an advertisement for the city’s biggest chappal store jostles with a portrait of Imran Khan glancing heavenward: it seems in grateful anticipation of his imminent victory. A small black and white sher peeps from behind, having been pushed to a 40-degree angle by the other two.
On several poles at this busy junction in Lahore the chappal store seems to be ahead in the race. Next day, though, the PTI comes back with a vengeance and Imran Khan’s familiar face takes its customary place in the limelight.
The erstwhile pop singer, Jawad Ahmad, another face made familiar by television cameras, is also vying for space in this pole politics. His yellow poster catches the eye but what keeps it there is his promise that every individual, regardless of employment status, will get Rs50,000 as minimum wage if his new Barabari Party comes into power.
Curiously, his posters are much smaller than the ones carrying the image of the larger-than-life PTI chief. Perhaps the size of the poster is a marker of wealth: the poor man on a Mehran, the rich on a Prado. But as it turns out, the smaller poster is actually just an acquiescence to the rules set by the Election Commission of Pakistan. According to these rules, posters cannot be larger than 2 feet by 3 feet. Surprisingly, the status quo party PML-N also seems to be following this rule.
The small poster printed on art paper material costs Rs4.6 each, while the same on a panaflex costs Rs198. The latter is not allowed under the ECP code of conduct but is being used freely by all parties. Each party has thousands of these printed nearly every day. A National Assembly constituency is huge and various forces come together to displace these posters from pivotal places.
Parties with more efficient human machinery work to quickly replace the ones that cave to natural or man-made calamities: like the recent torrential rain in Lahore, the forces of capitalist business, such as the shoe store ads, or the machinations of rival parties. That means these pole flexes are constantly in print, needing a continuous flow of cash.
According to the ECP’s rules, you can spend Rs4 million on one NA constituency and 2 million on a PA constituency, but seeing the costs of everyday affairs in just NA-131, it can be assumed that much more than that is spent in the course of the total campaign.
In affluent and army-controlled areas like Cantt and Defence, paper, flex and cloth banners cannot be displayed flagrantly, in fact main Cantt in Lahore is completely free of them. PTI has found an innovative workaround to this by displaying its ads on electronic boards mounted on poles. They are displayed alongside ads by a paint company and Packages Mall.
Then there are rickshaw ads favoured by the Barabari Party which have been emulated by the PTI. "Each rickshaw ad costs Rs215. The driver is paid Rs100 per month to display them, but now rickshaw drivers are asking for more because the PTI is imitating us and raising the bar by giving each driver a greater amount," says a member of the Barabari Party on the condition of anonymity. If nothing else, market forces are working in favour of the poor that these politicians claim to be working for.
One of the ways to create a buzz amongst smaller areas is the trusted corner meeting. These corner meetings are possible only if a party has a complex network of workers spread out everywhere in the constituency, particularly in the less affluent neighbourhoods where the votes are many and the houses closely huddled together.
At one such corner meeting held by the women’s wing of one of the major parties, a lady supporter who works for the government’s dengue campaign had rounded up around 150 women. Such corner meetings are a mainstay of the campaigning process. They generate excitement and energy and help a party gain momentum.
The woman who had convened this particular meeting told me the cost of such a corner meeting depends on its size. "It also depends on the menu. Sometimes we give juice and samosas, at other times it’s biryani. One dayg costs Rs6500. Today we gave two." The sound system racks up another three thousand. Then there is the cost of the tents, tables, chairs and carpet, also flower petals and water. "The total cost for our meeting came to around Rs25,000," she tells me.
During peak election campaign season at least 8 to 10 such corner meetings are held every day. If we take an average of 8 corner meetings a day, a target both the PML-N and PTI have been easily meeting every day, as printed schedules made available to TNS reveal, that makes Rs200,000 daily, amounting to about 4 million in 20 days. Add to this the printing costs, which most estimates consider to be in the vicinity of Rs5 million, we are already in the neighbourhood of 9 million rupees.
Many of the corner meetings at the initial stage of the campaign are also openings of party offices which are either rented or owned by one of the party workers. Each constituency has a main office and several small offices well fitted-out for campaign activity.
In NA-131, PML-N and PTI’s main offices are situated on major roads in the area. Their rental cost is above Rs150,000 a month. Then there are the salaries of people who man these offices but most crucial are the costs incurred on the election day.
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Despite a ban on providing transportation to voters, all major parties send in transport to carry voters to polling stations. Smart polling agents can be paid up to Rs8000 for their services on election day and in an urban constituency each polling station has up to 4 polling agents, two each on the men and women’s side.
All of the above does not include the cost of fuel, generators or maintenance. Elections, it seems, can only be contested by the absolute rich, and even anti-status quo parties have learnt the game this time.