Cash flows freely in India’s costliest-ever election

Influencing voters through ‘freebies’ an old ploy despite heavy penalties


Daily wage labourer Subhash Chand willingly accepted the quarter bottle of whisky and a 500-rupee (€6) banknote from a member of one of India’s two main rival political parties, the night before polling opened for the Outer Delhi parliamentary seat last week.

Both “incentives” were handed over surreptitiously to the 56-year old whitewasher by the party worker at his tenement home, with the clear message that he was to vote for their candidate on April 10th. He was promised additional “goodies” later if the candidate was victorious.

Chand, whose monthly earnings average about €60 for a 10-hour day scraping and painting walls, has a family of seven to sustain, and was keen to oblige his political patron at the ballot box.

Similar enticements were offered correspondingly to innumerable voters in Chand’s crowded neighbourhood by the two parties - Congress and BJP - locked in a bitter fight in India’s 2014 general elections.

And though offering inducements such liquor and cash, bicycles, saris, television sets, laptops and even livestock and food grain before is illegal, most Indian political parties rely on them as a means to secure their voters’ loyalty.

“It is easy to entice voters in India where nearly 70 percent of the population lives on less than €1.44 a day”, says K G Suresh of the Vivekanand International Foundation think-tank in New Delhi. “There are millions of Indians who have to struggle for even a square meal and election time for them is pay-day. Political loyalties depend largely on who offers what.”

Consequently, a candidate just might end up losing just because his rival has deeper pockets and can afford bigger and better eve-of-poll inducements, he points out.

Since the nine-phase polls were announced on March 5th, the Election Commission, responsible for overseeing the voting, has seized € 32.2 million in cash, more than 13.2 million litres of liquor, most of it in handy quart, bottles, and some 184 million kilograms of heroin in nationwide raids. Officials said the confiscated alcohol alone could be enough incentive to influence one in every 62 of India’s 814 million eligible voters.

Commission officials concede these seizures were meant for disbursement amongst voters by political parties and that far larger amounts had already been disbursed and more were in circulation. They admitted to being inadequately equipped and staffed to monitor and detect this vast contraband movement.

Past elections too have seen alcohol being transported freely in water tankers for distribution to voters and cash being stashed in ambulances. Commission officials said influencing voters through “freebies” was an old ploy despite the heavy penalties prescribed against it.

According to Election Commission rules if any candidate is proved guilty of resorting to pre-election bribery, their candidature can be annulled even after being elected. “This election is centred round the financial muscle of the political parties and their ability to offer incentives to millions of poor voters,” political commentator Seema Mustafa says, adding that in most instances there is no ideology involved, only handouts.

The chief minister of India’s southern Tamil Nadu state, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, is renowned for her voter giveaways.

After her party won the provincial elections in 2011, she launched a grandiose €1.44 billion scheme to distribute some seven million free laptops to State-aided school and college students as part of her populist pre-election promise. She also handed out sewing machines, spice mixers and even gold ornaments.

And in her 2014 manifesto, Jayalalitha has promised cows, goats, fans and 20 kilos of rice to each poor household as incentive for voting her regional party to parliament.

The Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi estimates that € 3.61 billion - almost triple the amount spent during the 2009 election - is likely to be expended by various political parties during the ongoing polls. This would render these elections the costliest ever in India and the world’s second most expensive campaign after the 2012 US presidential race that reportedly cost about €5.05 billion.

Topping the high-roller list is the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is widely tipped to prevail over the incumbent Congress Party that has been in power since 2004. Media reports indicate that being ahead in the political sweepstakes, the BJP has been receiving far more funding from supporters, including big businesses, than the Congress Party, viewed as the loser.

And though a proportion of this massive expense can be attributed to inflation, an inordinately large amount has been exhausted by political leaders ceaselessly crisscrossing the country on chartered aircraft and helicopters.

Elaborate campaign venues equipped with expensive three-dimensional holographic projections of leaders, such BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, transporting millions of supporters to rallies and providing them meals, as well as airing elaborate television commercials and harnessing social media outlets, too are expensive to sustain.

Politicians are targeting a younger, tech-savvy Indian electorate, many of them first-time voters with Western-style campaigning that costs money.

The Election Commission imposes tight legal limits on poll expenses by individual candidates of between € 64,840 and €84,050, but most aspiring MPs privately concede that these are “unrealistic” markers to which none adhere. “A more realistic amount is at least 10 to 15 times the prescribed limit depending on the constituency,” a senior BJP leader says, declining to be named.

The election has also plumbed the depths of vitriolic rhetoric never seen before.

Rivals attack each other savagely, frequently resorting to highly personalised comments and provocative speeches in a highly charged atmosphere. “In my three decades of observing polls, this is probably the lowest the (political) discourse has fallen,” says H S Brahma, one of the three election commissioners.

He attributed declining campaigning standards to the deterioration in political standards. “The growing use of unparliamentary language by politicians is because of the failure of our political leadership,” he suggests.

Voting in 110 of 543 constituencies so far has averaged over 65 per cent in an election in which the Congress Party is seriously challenged by the BJP.

Recent polls indicate a victory for a BJP-led coalition comprising a handful of regional parties. No single party has won a parliamentary majority in India since 1989 and these elections promise to be no different.

But analysts predict that a moribund Congress Party, beset by a lacklustre leadership, corruption scandals, maladministration, rising prices and unemployment and frequent instances of horrendous rapes, is unlikely to offer the BJP any competition at the hustings.

Voting in 122 constituencies across the country takes place on Thursday, marking the half-way point in the elections.

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