Democratic generosity

As the Election Commission of India tightens the noose to ensure free and fair elections, the politicians, especially in Tamil Nadu, have found innovative ways to shower the voters with gifts. But, can ‘bribing’ voters ensure victory? Or, does democracy still win?

A few days from now will mark the end of an innovative cat-and-mouse game being played ostensibly to further the cause of democracy. The cat on the prowl is the Election Commission of India (EC) and the mouse does not need any introduction. And, it is no patch on the hugely enjoyable Tom and Jerry cartoon series. It is a simple, yet strange game - bribing the voter. And this time around, the level of innovation has reached such proportions that it would merit a full blown study.

It has been a common practice across the country for voters, particularly among the economically weaker sections, to be adequately ‘taken care of’. In simple language, it means providing some goodies to the voters once campaigning ends (roughly 38 hours) before polling begins. These goodies would invariably be liquor with food packets plus or minus money. This used to be the practice earlier and continues even today. Some candidates confident of victory would be astounded when the results came in. All because the rival candidate would have taken good care of some pockets where people could be swayed by the goodies.

Over a period of time, the EC cracked down quite a lot on this last minute distribution of goodies. The political class tweaked its machinery - yes, there is a separate machinery each candidate deploys. It meant providing the goodies a few days before the period of campaigning ended. More the EC tightened the screws, more innovative became the political machinery. And, this innovative spirit is most evident in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where elections to the legislative assembly are scheduled for May 16. Every election has been a challenge to the EC whose job it is to ensure that the process is free and fair. As a part of this mandate, the EC needs to ensure that voters are not bribed because it would mean not so much the defeat of candidate X or Y but the defeat of democracy.

But the hunger for power makes the political class in this state adopt ways that can really shake up anybody’s faith in democracy. Some years ago, to subvert the tough measures taken by the EC, the political class launched an operation that took everyone by surprise. Money was not handed over to the voter by any member of the candidate’s team. It meant that the money giver could not be identified and, therefore, none could be arrested for attempting to bribe the voter. Parties adopted the unusual way of ensuring that everyone got the morning's newspaper. Inside the newspaper pages were crisp currency notes as well as the party’s message seeking votes. This came to be called as the ‘Tirumangalam formula’ because it was tried out in a by-election in 2009. The EC did issue notice to the innovator who was then a federal minister, but nothing much came out of it.

The great innovators have found various other ways of delivering goodies to the voters. The use of tradition and culture in this illegal activity is so seamlessly interwoven that the ‘cat’ really has to be extra smart to get to ‘mouse’, so to speak. It is standard practice for voters to receive a candidate seeking votes by the traditional aarthi as an act of gratitude for having visited their house. It is also customary for the visitor to place some money in the steel or copper plate since it will all go towards the local deity. In some states, the candidates would place a R500 (RO2.89 approx) note or even a few more. But in Tamil Nadu, the candidates are so humble that they place a mere R10. It was only much later that the authorities realised that the serial number on the note could fetch the voter goodies of household appliances worth R2,000 (RO11.54 approx) or more from a local shop.

There are other instances as well. Like there have been instances of politicos taking a house on rent for the period of the election and making the neighbour host a lavish lunch or dinner for guests, largely from the same village. And when the guest departed from the party, each of them would be given a traditional farewell with a return gift, an envelope containing currency notes. One such innovator was so conscious that there could be a sting operation which would appear on television channels that he organised a power shut down in the entire locality for a few minutes so that no camera could record the activity in the darkness. It’s still in the realm of speculation as to how his team members identified and delivered the return gifts in complete darkness to the guests.

So, will the voter be loyal to the person who lavishes them with gifts? In some cases, yes. In many others, as experience shows, such acts of bribery do not always work. The best example comes from another southern state of Karnataka which saw the worst form of bribery about eight years ago. That election to the assembly from the iron-ore rich district of Ballari came to be known as the ‘red note’ election. The red note, in other words, was the description of the R1,000 (RO5.77 approx) currency note. The note was folded like a cigarette and given along with the voters slip that needs to presented at the polling booth. Everyone believed that the candidate who supplied the ‘red note’ in multiples of five or ten during the campaign would win hands down. The rival party and the candidate decided that they could not just match up to the deep pocket. Its candidate went around personally meeting voters. Yes, he lost the election but by a meagre 2,000 votes. But, it meant that the large majority of people who took the money from the iron-ore mining lord decided to take the money but vote for a candidate of their choice. The small margin was, in many ways, a victory for the voter and for democracy. At that point of time the EC was not as effective as it is now. Every innovative action has brought about a new strategy from the EC. Like always, the current one is equally a tough test for the EC.

Invisible mouse

As expected, the debate on the alleged corruption in the, subsequently cancelled proposal, for the purchase of AgustaWestland helicopters dominated both the Houses of Parliament. And, again, to be fair to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it was a remarkable performance. Every single person fielded by the party in parliament had something interesting to contribute to the debate. Fundamentally, they were pointing out the deviations in the specs of the copters which were proposed to be imported by the federal government for ferrying the prime minister, defence minister etc.

When the opposition Congress members pointed out that the specs were changed by the then BJP-led government in 2003, the BJP members were undeterred. Every speaker, including the Defence Minister, maintained the tempo of suspense so well that it appeared all the arguments being put up by the Congress leaders would fall flat. In short, an atmosphere was created by senior members and ministers of the ruling party to say that the corruption went right up to the level of Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

The ruling party speakers spoke a language which would not, possibly, fall within the ambit of defaming the Gandhi family but yet achieved the purpose of painting it as corrupt. All this on the basis of a note which one middleman sends to his fixer colleague that the people to target are the persons who are the driving force behind the government. At least one television channel spoke to the Italian judge who delivered his verdict and sent one of the middlemen to prison. The judge made it clear that he had not held Sonia Gandhi guilty. Her name figured only in the note of the fixer. Yet, the ruling party maintained publicly that the Gandhi family was guilty. And, even the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, made it an election issue in Tamil Nadu and the other southern state of Kerala when he said that it was an Italian court verdict, so why is the BJP being targeted. The bottom line was that when the Defence Minister was pushed to a corner, he came up with the line that the government will find the ‘invisible hand’. The best response to that did not come from the Congress party leaders but from a former BJP minister whose words cannot be dismissed easily by the party. Arun Shourie said, “They dug the mountain not just to find a mouse but an invisible mouse”!

Tailpiece

The best news from India is the meteorological department’s report stating that there are no heatwave conditions existing anywhere in the country. And, what a relief that was. After four months or more, at least in southern India, people are beginning to breathe easy with showers or thundershowers breaking out. There is nothing else that brings relief to your senses than the smell of rain falling on the parched ground. Coming as the rains did after temperatures rose to heatwave conditions (5°C above the normal temperature), Indians are now waiting for something more. A regular monsoon which failed the last two years. So, everyone’s keeping their fingers and, maybe, their toes too, crossed!

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]

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