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As more and more Indians get connected to the net, online propaganda and political messaging have never appeared as important as it does today. Nowhere is this more evident than Tamil Nadu, where political parties have spent at least 33 crore on Google ads. In past state elections in Maharashtra (2019) and Delhi (2020), such ads were worth less than 5 crore, a Mint analysis of Google ads data shows.

Tamil Nadu’s elections cost more in terms of Google ads than any other election in the country since Feb 2019, the analysis suggests. This includes the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But it should be borne in mind that online ad spending prior to February 2019 is not publicly available, and hence not part of the analysis. The spending estimate for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls may therefore be a bit of an underestimate.

Given that Google does not identify political affiliations for third party ads, those had to be identified individually by examining the ads (or pages) promoting respective parties. Only advertisers who paid at least 50,000 to place ads were considered in the sample.

The analysis shows that both Dravidian parties, DMK and AIADMK have spent more than any other regional party has spent in recent elections on Google. Unusually for an incumbent, AIADMK’s spending has been less than a third of what DMK has spent in the latest elections. On Facebook, the gap between the two parties is lower but DMK still has a lead over AIADMK.

Facebook ads

Facebook doesn’t provide time series data in the same detailed format as Google but it provides data on ad spending for recent months. And among the states which saw polls this year, West Bengal’s ruling party Trinamool Congress has spent the most.

DMK and AIADMK follow close behind the Trinamool even on Facebook, suggesting that the combined online poll spending by the Dravidian parties (on Google and Facebook) is higher than that of regional outfits from any other state that has witnessed recent elections. The intensity of competition in Tamil Nadu, the reach of digital platforms, and the high stakes involved in ruling one of India’s richest states may all be driving parties to spend more on social media and online campaigns. The Stalin-led DMK’s reincarnation as a digital-friendly outfit may also have contributed to the surge in digital spending, prompting rival AIADMK to match such spending to some extent.

Traditional spending

On Facebook, the BJP has also spent a fair amount across states but its spending is lower than some of the leading regional parties in the fray. It is possible that BJP’s spending on traditional poll expenditure (such as rallies and hoardings) is higher than other parties.

Traditional spending data is typically under-reported, and the actual spending can differ widely from what parties declare. A recent research paper by the political scientists Ashwani Kumar, Souradeep Banerjee, and Shashwat Dhar based on field work in two constituencies during the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections suggests that actual spending may be 10 times or more compared to what candidates declare.

Even when it comes to declared spending, Tamil Nadu elections seem relatively costlier. Compared to the other states that are going through elections now, candidates in Tamil Nadu declared higher expenditure in the previous assembly election cycle.

Wealth and power

States such as Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have historically seen higher election spending because these are rich industrialized states where the stakes are very high, the political scientist Rahul Verma said.

High ad spending in Tamil Nadu may therefore reflect competitive investments by the rival Dravidian parties to reap future rewards once they return to power. Even beyond Tamil Nadu, the link between wealth and power has grown closer over the past few decades, research by the political scientist Milan Vaishnav suggests. Growing electoral competition leads parties to favour wealthier candidates, often with a criminal past, who stand a better chance of winning than poorer ones .

Between 2004 and 2014, candidates from the richest wealth group had a 23% chance of winning a Lok Sabha poll. For the least wealthy candidates, this was just 1%, Vaishnav’s research shows.

As political spending shifts to the digital medium, leading to greater transparency, hopefully this will spark a wider debate on election funding and spending in the country.

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