The hidden financial system of political rallies – Newspaper

The business side of political activity in Pakistan lacks transparency. The leading political parties, PMLN, PPP, PTI, JUIF, ANP and others, compete in making tall claims of accountability but feel no compulsion to disclose the money trail for funding of rallies and long marches that by all counts are costly affairs.

Given the amount of below the table dealings, no one wants to go on record regarding the costs and logistics involved in organizing these events. Indeed, the predominant fears are of recorded calls and leaked names as they provide an overview of the necessary underhand dealings.

“I earned about Rs140 million from the Lahore rally,” says an alleged organizer of PTI’s recent jalsa who estimated the total cost of the rally to be around Rs220m.

Another source places the figure for the Karachi rally at a much more conservative Rs30m. “Given the frequency of rallies, political parties find it more cost-effective to invest in paraphernalia such as chairs and sound system which is stored when not in use. It is so much easier to use party chairs than try to arrange thousands of chairs during wedding season,” he says.

Event managers undertake a lot of risks when organizing a political rally, from the fear of not being paid to the probability of the equipment being damaged but the risks are embedded in the rates charged

The breakup of the cost of a rally is hard to estimate. By one account, the stage, made from containers accounts form a big chunk of expense. Hobbling together rule-of-thumb estimates, a container’s rent for 24 hours is between Rs40,000-80,000, depending on the strength of negotiations, personal contacts, ruling party or opposition, etc.

According to an organizer, the stage in Lahore was 80 feet by 100 feet. Assuming 8 feet by 20 feet containers, a stage can cost anywhere between Rs20m to Rs40m per day. If the stage is made beforehand, its expense rises by the tune of millions.

To arrange a jalsa, permission must be first taken from the local government board in the form of a no-objection certificate. The charges for this permission include the cleanup expenses after the event. Different bodies charge different rates to different parties — the rate that is charged to private events is different from the ones charged to a political party.

As a rule of thumb, it costs Rs500-2,000 per cleaning worker and about 100-150 workers are required for events as big as PTI’s political rallies. The neighborhood’s official government acts as a ‘contractor’. Cleaning staff on the government’s payroll is given the day off to come to work at night, and the pockets of contractors are lined.

There is a vast difference in the estimation of the number of people attending a rally of any party. They generally tend to exaggerate it by some margin. Take for example the recent PTI jalsa.

“In Karachi, we estimate about 500,000 people attended since the ground, at maximum capacity, can accommodate 300,000 people and the surrounding areas were filled. I was not there in Lahore, but a technology company has assessed that there was cellular traffic of around 600,000 sims around that time so we can assume that about 700,000 people attended,” says PTI Spokesperson on Finance and Economy, Muzzammil Aslam.

This number was hotly contested by an organizer who said he had arranged 8,000 chairs in Karachi and 20,000 chairs in Lahore. “It is hard to gather even 5,000 people at a time,” he laughed. “Think in multiples of 10, so if a political party has 2,000 chairs, they will say 20,000 people attended.”

Filling rallies with live bodies is an economic activity in its own regard. Here too, contractors are used for transporting hordes of people to the event. Since roads are often blocked, drivers of buses find it difficult to navigate their usual routes. Instead, they are offered money for bringing people to the jalsa. The cost of one person (including food) is ballparked at Rs500, but how much a person actually receives depends on the dynamics between the contractor and the people.

“However, in the recent PTI’s Karachi jalsa relatively affluent people attended who had their own modes of transportation; nozzles didn’t need to be used,” he conceded.

Event managers undertake a lot of risks when organizing a political rally, from the fear of not being paid to the probability of the equipment being broken or damaged. “There is an almost tradition in Lahore that after the rally, miscreants stay back and break chairs. Another is to break the clay containers of kheer after eating it,” says a source indulgently.

But the risks are embedded in the costs charged. “If something costs Rs2, I charge anywhere from between Rs4 to Rs10,” he says, explaining the complex process of receiving the payment. “We get our payment in cash but have to pay our vendors through cheque.”

Initially evasive about the means at which millions of rupees can exchange hands in cash form, he eventually explains the process.

For example, imagine Rs140m being paid in installations of Rs50m. The mind boggles at a person simply lugging this amount around. Assuming that the currency denomination was Rs5,000, it would take a 100 stacks of 100 Rs5,000 currency notes to add up to Rs50m, all of which is totted around in a humble dirty brown paper bag in unpretentious modes of transportation of motorcycles or rickshaws while a car or two discreetly follows for safety. The time and place of the drop of money is a closely guarded secret for obvious reasons. The money is then funneled to certain overseas destinations to bring back to bank accounts that can be used to pay off vendors.

An organizer reminisced how one of the parties in the ruling coalition refused to pay the Rs45m that was due. “Costs are decided verbally, nothing is on paper so if a party refuses to cough up, there is nothing one can do except be humiliated repeatedly,” he said.

Other organizers beg to differ. “Be it any party, those who don’t know the members won’t work with them, and those who know them have strong political relationships or friendships so payment is cleared fast,” was a common refrain.

The economic activity of each rally is to the tune of millions of rupees in which many pockets are lined. As parties gear up for bigger showdowns, many rub their hands in glee at the windfall of money and hope for the continuation of political turmoil.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 25th, 2022

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