Like other elections held in the recent decades, the biggest worry for the Election Commission (EC) these days as it conducts and oversees Assembly elections in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala
Like other elections held in the recent decades, the biggest worry for the Election Commission (EC) these days as it conducts and oversees Assembly elections in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, is the excessive use of money by political parties and their candidates to buy votes.
Large sums of money, both accounted and unaccounted for, are being spent by candidates in the hope that they will win elections by buying votes.
Studies conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicate that while this practice is prevalent in most states to varying degrees, it is much more rampant in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, but not in Kerala. During the last Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu in 2011, more than 70 per cent voters talked of either receiving gifts or money themselves or they had heard of others receiving gifts or money from political parties during the election campaign. The proportion of voters having similar experience is much lower in other states.
In Tamil Nadu, the practice of “bribing for votes” has become an intrinsic part of election culture. In fact, the kind of “freebie culture” that has developed in the state in the last one and a half decade is quite unique — “gifts” have now evolved from “welfare goods” to “consumer goods” like TV sets, mobile phones, sewing machines, etc. With more than two weeks left for voting, the cash seized by EC in Tamil Nadu probably meant for buying freebies for voters is much more — Rs 24.90 crore — compared to what has been seized from other states. West Bengal — Rs 12.84 crore, Assam — Rs 12.33 crore, Kerala — Rs 11.73 crore, in and Puducherry the relatively smaller amount of Rs 60.88 lakh.
It is reasonable to believe that money is important to win elections in India, but at the same time it is important to realise that only money can’t guarantee victory. True, during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the success rate of candidates who had more than Rs 50 crore as declared asset was 30 per cent, while amongst candidates whose declared asset was much less, between Rs 2 crore to Rs 50 lakh, the success rate was 10 per cent, but that does not mean that only wealthy candidates manage to win elections in India.
The success rate of candidates whose declared assets were between Rs 50 crore and Rs 10 crore, was more or less 30 per cent during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Money is certainly needed to be in serious electoral contest, but candidates can’t win election only by distributing gifts and money. If elections could be won only by money, the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas would have only very wealthy people.
If candidates and political parties believe that they can win elections only by pleasing voters by way of gifts and money, they are seriously mistaken. Voters may be poor, but their votes are not up for sale.
True that when candidates and political parties distribute gifts during the election campaign and a day or two before the voting, voters are willing to accept these gifts, but that does not mean that the voters make any kind of real commitment to vote for the candidate from whom they’ve received gifts. In fact, in a state like Tamil Nadu, where almost all parties try to bribe voters, it is difficult to say which party they will vote for. After all, they may receive gifts from more than one party, but they have only one vote. And one can’t expect voters to be so honest and loyal to refuse gifts or money from someone else once they have accepted money from one candidate.
I am sure as we move closer to the day of voting in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, candidates will try to use money for bribing voters either by giving them cash, by distributing gifts or even liquor a day or two before the voting. Dry days observed on and around voting days are hardly ever really dry.
Yes, the use of money to bribe voters is disturbing, but one need not worry too much. Indian voters are not up for sale. Voters, whether poor or rich, do not necessarily vote for the candidate from whom they’ve received gifts or money.
The same CSDS study also indicated that of voters who received money from candidates, only a few felt obliged to vote for the party from which they had received money. The majority said that they voted as they wished.
Studies indicate that while candidates and parties indulge in various methods to bribe voters, large number of voters in India take pride in their vote and understand its value. They have a strong belief that even if they have one vote, it’s crucial to bring about change or to keep the incumbent in power. Also, their voting choices are guided largely by their preference for a party rather than the candidate, and their party choice depends on their day-to-day needs, like roads, drinking water, school, public transport, price rise, etc, rather than the power of money.
The writer is a professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
The views expressed are personal.