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Vote-buying kills democratic contests

April 02, 2014 15:59 IST

Despite a strong anti-corruption mood, where election costs are seen as the driver for graft, politicians don’t change their spots. Unsurprisingly, this trend of unleashing cash can be expected to continue in this Lok Sabha elections too, says Mahesh Vijapurkar

Sounds odd, but had it not been for the Reserve Bank of India, the rampant use of black money in elections this season would not have come to light so quickly. Since it pre-2005 Rs 500 currency notes were being withdrawn, shopkeepers refused to accept them in Andhra Pradesh where civic elections were held last week. Under the impression that they were therefore fakes, the voters who had got up to Rs 2,500 per head took to the streets in some cities.

The conclusions can be educative. One, that the political parties had opened their moneybags; two, that voters had no compunction in accepting them; and three, the voters’ view that politicians can cheat strengthens. Above all, despite a strong anti-corruption mood, where election costs are seen as the driver for graft, politicians don’t change their spots. Unsurprisingly, this trend of unleashing cash can be expected to continue in this Lok Sabha elections too.

Already estimates are that the total cost for the polls at Rs 30,000 crore, not a number for the faint-hearted, a third would be unaccounted cash, according to a think tank quoted in the media. A friend from Hyderabad has spoken of how his domestic help travelled to her home town to cast her civic vote because parties paid for it. She chose her favourite, but accepted money from those who tendered it. Now she is set for the reaping from the Lok Sabha polls. Another confirms this is routine.

These non-residential voters, a kind of electoral expats, even get their travel organised or reimbursed. It is possible that the Mumbai mathadi (head load carriers) voters, who were told to vote twice and have confessed to having their names in two electoral lists, too need to travel. They also accept, if offered, which mostly is the case, any assistance. Migrants have their names on a list to be called back to vote; they may be doing their duty, but for a price.

It is a fact that inflation drives the costs up beyond the permissible limits, a limit always honoured in its breach. It is also true that keener the fights, as it is this time, all stops are pulled out by both the parties and the candidates.

The poorer ones, like the AAP’s candidates, just get stranded. Ask Medha Patkar. It is unlikely that despite the best intents of her supporters, she would even be able to reach the permissible level of funds to spend. This renders the contest unequal.

S Y Quraishi, the former chief election commissioner was seen telling Aamir Khan on the Satyameva Jayate television show that money is transported in ambulances pretending that they are carrying either a sick person or a body for cremation. That in once instance weddings were organised as a pretext to gather the voters with proper invitation cards. The only thing missing was, in one case, the bride and groom. Devious ways, including hawala, dead of night visits to voters, are the norm.

There are set ways. The set pattern for a party in power, without exception, is to tom-tom their presumed achievements through high powered advertising using government funds. This starts just before the election time, and ceases a tad before the expected announcement of the activating the model code of conduct. No party, except AAP this time, questions it because each does it when its turn to seek re-election arrives. Many candidates sure of nomination spend a bulk before that date.

One had thought that the emergence of the AAP would douse the enthusiasm of the legacy politicians or professional politicians to throw their cash around. The contradiction on the ground is that these Johnnies would like to spend and ensure that the clean politics sought to be ushered in is nipped in the bud. Apart from the usual practice, they want to survive so things don’t change. It has to be business as usual for them.

Electoral malpractices, also seen as corrupt practices include a range of things done, not done or said. Like Sharad Pawar’s infamous call to his matahdi voters to cast their vote back home, wipe of the ink -- it is said to be indelible -- and return to exercise their right to vote again. While monitoring of election spending is very poor, and mostly the EC goes by the generally false or the cooked ones, these other malpractices require exemplary punishment.

All it has done is to tell him to be ‘careful’ while expressing its displeasure though it was ‘not satisfied’. That was a mild rap but another -- not the first time, though -- such incident has surfaced. Raj Thackeray, speaking at his first Lok Sabha campaign speech, asked his voters to accept the cash they were ‘distributing’ but vote for the party he heads. Was this encouraging corrupt practice, or by “exposing”, stymy the competition?

These practices do not speak well for the ‘vibrant’ democracy which is a periodic ‘festival’ because of the outcomes we know: keeps vested interests entrenched and make the voters cynical. They tend to put a price on their vote and ignore its all-important value. The only silver lining is that those who accept the cash may not necessarily vote for the payer but the manner in which groups are controlled by politicians’ middlemen, it may not always be so.

As long as the EC does not manage to curb this, and as long as the moneyed are seen as ‘resourceful’ and therefore with a higher electability quotient, this malaise and menace would remain. And by that, the level playing field the one-man, one-vote is supposed to provide would most certainly remain a dream. Those who can’t buy a vote are generally losers. And those who win by buying won’t care a tinker’s curse for the voter once elected.

Mahesh Vijapurkar