More than Rs 6,500 crore or Rs 65.641 billion was spent on elections by 18 political parties, including seven national parties and 11 regional parties, between 2015 and 2020, shows FactChecker's analysis of the annual audit reports of the political parties submitted to the Election Commission of India. Of this, the political parties spent more than Rs 34 billion or 52.3% on publicity alone.

The seven national parties include: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian National Congress (INC), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, All India Trinamool Congress (AITC).

The regional parties are: Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), Janata Dal United (JDU), Janata Dal Secular (JDS), Akali Dal, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Shiv Sena, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP), Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

When it comes to election expenditure, BJP spent 56% (over Rs 3,600 crore) of the total election outlay by all 18 parties in the five years and INC spent 21.41% (over Rs 1,400 crore). This means that of the 18 parties, BJP and INC together accounted for more than 77% of the total five-year expenditure on elections. Next on the list, by a huge margin, are Samajwadi Party (3.95%), DMK (3.06%), YSRCP (2.17%), BSP (2.04%), and TMC (1.83%).

Election Publicity Expense

In the last five years, BJP has spent 54.87% (over Rs 2,000 crore) of their total election expenditure on "Advertisements and Publicity" alone as compared to 15.29% on travel, 11.25% as financial assistance to candidates and around 7.2% (Rs 260 crore) on morchas, rallies and andolans.

Similarly, Congress, in the five-year period, has spent 40.08% (Rs 560 crore) of the total election expenditure on election-related publicity and 17.47% (250 crore) on travel during polls.

AIADMK, AIMIM, JD(U), JD(S), Akali Dal, in their audit reports, have not reported any election expenditure for 2017-18. Also, JD(U) has reported no election expenditure in 2016-17.

In 2019-20, India's 18 political parties spent around 49% of their total poll expenditure on publicity or propaganda. The parties together spent Rs 2,800 crore in 2019-20. Of this, more than Rs 1,300 crore was spent on publicity or propaganda and 57.6% of it or more than Rs 700 crore was spent by BJP alone. This was followed by INC (29.5%), NCP (3.6%) and AAP (1.7%).

Under publicity, FactChecker has added up advertisement and media expenses (print and electronic), social media, morcha/rally, flag and hoarding expenses and election strategy campaigning expenses. While most national and regional parties have "publicity expenses" as a sub-head, state parties such as AAP, DMK and Shiv Sena have "party propaganda expenses" as a separate category instead of publicity expenses.

Notably, a higher public expenditure on publicity and advertising in an election year is a major factor for an incumbent state government to retain power, said economists in a May 2021 State Bank of India report titled State Elections: How Women are Shaping India's Destiny.

BJP's publicity expenses have increased from Rs 180 crore in 2015-16 to a whopping Rs 790 crore — an increase of 324% -- in 2019-20. However, INC has not seen a steady increase in publicity in the last five years. While publicity spending tremendously increased (48 times) from more than Rs 8.3 crore in 2015-16 to more than RS 400 crore in 2019-20, the party saw a major dip of 86.5% in 2017-18 compared to the previous year (2016-17).

Non-Poll Publicity

Political parties have also spent on advertising and publicity as a part of their 'administrative and general expenses', or in some cases, as a part of their 'other' expenditure. However, only five political parties, namely, INC, NCP, AAP, JDU and Shiv Sena, have provided this information consistently for the last five years.

Among these, INC spent the most with Rs 118 crore, which is 69.2% of the total non-election publicity expenditure borne by all five parties. It is followed by AAP (17.1%), NCP (6.6%), JDU (5.1%) and Shiv Sena (2%).

During last year (2019-20) too, INC stood on top with an expenditure of around Rs 15 crore on non-poll publicity and of this, it spent over Rs 4 crore on social media alone.

A distant second is NCP, with just over Rs 4.27 crore spent and of this, the party shelled out Rs 86 lakh on social media. SP and CPI have spent Rs 55.43 lakh and Rs 86,155 on non-election-related publicity, respectively.

The regional parties that have reported administrative & general or other publicity expenditure in 2019-20 include Shiv Sena, AAP, AIMIM, DMK, JD(S), JD(U), LJP, and RJD. Of these, AAP has spent the most — Rs 3.99 crore, followed by Shiv Sena (Rs 3.17 crore), LJP (Rs 1.15 crore) and AIMIM (Rs 4.32 lakh).

While AIADMK, YSRCP, Akali Dal have reported such expenditure in previous years, they did not report for 2019-20. Of the national parties, BJP, CPI(M), and TMC have also not reported such publicity expenditure.

Financial Assistance to Candidates

Of the 18 parties, three national (BJP, TMC, NCP) and two regional parties (AAP and JD(U)) have provided data on the amount spent as financial assistance/payment to political candidates standing for elections. With more than Rs 411 crore, BJP (83%) spent the most in providing financial assistance to their candidates in the last five years with 2019-20 seeing them pay the candidates the most — more than Rs 100 crore.

NCP spent 7.9% of the total amount these five political parties paid to their candidates in the last five years, followed by TMC (5.1%), AAP (2.3%) and JD(U) (1.7%).