Several candidates cutting across party lines have taken to online crowd funding to finance their election campaigns, ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
Cash-starved, these nominees are also advocating transparency in poll funding.
Prominent among them are CPI candidate Kanhaiya Kumar, who is fighting the election from Begusarai in Bihar, Nana Patole, the Congress candidate from Nagpur, Raghav Chaddah of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, and Mohammed Salim of the CPI(M) from Raiganj seat in West Bengal.
Online crowd funding, a popular exercise in Europe before elections, was first witnessed in India during the 2017 Manipur Assembly polls.
The then anti-AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Power Act) crusader, Irom Sharmila, had resorted to the exercise and collected Rs 4.5 lakh for her party - People's Resurgence and Justice Alliance.
Since then the practice of raising money from people via the Internet has been adopted by a number of politicians.
This will, however, be the first time since Lok Sabha polls began in 1952 that candidates in large numbers have resorted to online crowd funding to meet the expenses of their poll campaigns and send out a message of accountability.
Kumar, a former president of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union, has so far raised Rs 70 lakh from more than 5,500 people.
He is followed by Atishi Marlena of the AAP, who has garnered Rs 50 lakh for fighting the polls from the East Delhi parliamentary seat. Pedapudi Vijay Kumar, who is contesting the election on a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ticket from Parchur constituency in Andhra Pradesh, figures third on the list with Rs 1,90,000.
CPI-M veteran Mohammed Salim is not far behind. He has raised Rs 1,40,000, according to the online crowdfunding platforms.
"We decided to go for crowd funding as we wanted complete transparency in our activities. The practice is common in the Left parties as candidates, during their door-to-door visits, often seek help from people," Reza Haider, the campaign chief of Kanhaiya Kumar, said.
"Online crowd funding makes things easier as you can raise more money in a shorter span of time," Haider told PTI.
When contacted, Salim said this was the first time he resorted to online crowd funding as several well wishers and friends who live in other parts of the country had expressed their willingness to fund his campaign.
Our democracy.in, one of the popular online crowdfunding websites, has taken up 40 projects (candidates) and raised Rs 1.4 crore through 17,000 contributors.
"Crowdfunding is an alternative to cash-intensive political funding in India. Not only does it let you raise white money through bank-to-bank transaction, each contribution is also a form of endorsement.
"The exercise goes a long way in cementing your support base," says Bilal Zaidi, co-founder of the website.
Among others who are relying on crowd-generated funds for their campaigns are Raghav Chaddha from Delhi, Dharamvir Gandhi from Patiala, Elvis Gomes from Goa - all from the AAP, S H Bukhari from the BSP, Raju Yadav from the CPI(ML), Sneha Kale, a transgender activist from Mumbai.
"We are overwhelmed by the response of the citizens as well as the political aspirants. So far, we have raised close to Rs 1.4 crore," Anand Mangnale, the other co-founder OurDemocracy.in told PTI.
Asked about the procedure for maintaining transparency in the transactions, Mangnale said each donation, be it Rs 100 or Rs 5,000, is accounted for.
"Certain procedures have to be followed before donating money. Even if you give Rs 100, you have to register your mobile number and e-mail id. We accept donations only after proper verification," he said.
The platform deducts five per cent from every donation as part of its remuneration, he said.
Although the idea of organized online crowd funding is new, candidates have long been seeking help from common people during elections.
Since Independence, several parties, including the Left parties, visited households to seek help, both financial and material, to meet their expenses.
With the advent of corporate funding, however, the practice eventually faded out.
Election funding in India remains an opaque, black money-driven exercise, said BSP nominee Pedapudi Vijay Kumar.
Only transparent methods of online crowdfunding can help solve the issue by tracing the source of funds, he said.
According to the advocates of online crowd funding, corporate houses give huge sums of money to the political parties and dictate their government policies in return.
"When the corporate have stake in the government through monetary contributions to political parties, democracy stops functioning," Mangnale said.