The Election Commission has done its best to stem the flow of money in Tamil Nadu's elections, but it is the politician who is having the last laugh, report Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar and Saisuresh Sivaswamywho travelled from Kanyakumari to Chennai.
They thought no one could change Tamil Nadu. The culture of notes for votes would be always there and that one just has to live with it. But this time round the Election Commission has gone all out to check the flow of money from the candidates/political parties to the voter.
Every day one hears about cash seizures across the state and round the clock. Not only are the officials working without sleep, they seem to have ensure that the party workers don't sleep out of fear too. Only the voter sleeps, but is sometimes woken up with the midnight knock.
Unlike War-time Europe when people were scared of the midnight knock on the door, here the midnight knock is a welcome one because Thamizh Thai (Mother Tamil) bestows an envelope filled with currency, no questions asked. Only one plea: enga katchikku vottu podunga (please vote for our party).
On Sunday morning I spoke to a party worker who wanted to know if I was taping the conversation. After I assured him that I was not, he admitted that the previous day they had distributed Rs 300 per voter. He added that the other party had given only Rs 250 per voter and so he stood a better chance.
His only grouse was that the panchayat president, who was in charge of distributing the cash, had pocketed a big amount himself.
The other party worker was very happy and confirmed what his rival had already told us, that they had paid out Rs 250 per voter. "Isn't that very less for Tamil Nadu standards?" I ask. "Anna, don't say that, only in bye-elections can we give in thousands, this is a state election, we have to distribute money in the entire state."
"In only our constituency we have to give 200,000 voters, just calculate how much it comes to for the entire state, it's a huge amount," he adds.
In another village, a young man tells us that while one party was distributing Rs 200 per voter, the other was paying Rs 300. Here, too, they were disappointed at the small amount, but some money is better than no money at all, they felt. An elderly man said that some homes got Rs 500, while another young boy said his friend got Rs 1,000.
The bigger amounts were for households, not per voter, depending on the number of voters each has.
Yes, the Election Commission has done a stupendous job trying to curb money power trumping popular choice, but sadly, the rot has set in too deep; what is required is surgery, not a band-aid. The Commission certainly won the battle, but the war has been won by the politician.
I then asked the actual money distributors if they were worried about being caught. "People have been caught only when someone complains. Here both parties know each other well. We let them distribute money and they left us alone," was the nonchalant reply.
The biggest amount being given out in the state, we discovered, was by a shop selling television sets. He was offering a discount of Rs 3,000 on every TV purchased by his constituents. Along with the discount, you also get a whisper in your ear as to who to vote for.
But how would the shopkeeper explain the discount to the government if asked? "Exchange offer," he grins, which is written on the bill, never mind that there has been no exchange of old TV for new.
One candidate hit the ground running a month ago. He arranged for a kolam (rangoli, loosely translated) competition and gave out prizes. Wonder how a prize can be a bribe? Well, some 4,500 girls participated in the contest and all 4,500 girls were given prizes. And not some cheap medal. Each girl took home a pressure cooker.
While the Election Commission has arrested many people, both for distributing and in a few cases for accepting money, the political parties come out with more and more innovative ways of beating the system.
You can get your phone recharged for the promised amount from particular shops.
You can get petrol for a certain amount.
You can even buy stainless steel vessels for the same amount.
Perhaps it all lies in what Tamilians learn early. After all, aren't they taught at a young age in school saint-poet Thiruvalluvar's immortal couplet: Nandri marappadhu nandralla (it is not good to forget a good turn)?