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Distortions of Democracy: Money power unleashed to win polls

GVL Narasimha Rao, LensOnNews

The inducement of ‘money for votes’ is an age old phenomenon but it was earlier confined to some economically weaker sections. Today, it is an all pervasive phenomenon as parties and candidates are vying with each other and upping stakes to win elections through unfair means of bribing voters. The pernicious trend has spread to all castes, communities and income strata. 

Voters seem to rationalize that the candidates and parties indulge in rampant corruption in any case and therefore, ‘charging’ them for votes once in five years is not morally decrepit. This is a vicious cycle. People accept money as a charge levied on corrupt politicians and elected politicians legitimize political corruption as a necessary evil and imperative to retain electoral viability. This jinx must be broken for our political process to regain sanctity. 
At a time when some high profile anti-corruption agitations evoked nation-wide response, it is ironical that the political parties are unabashedly adopting corrupt means to get themselves elected. In the ongoing assembly elections, the Election Commission along with income-tax and other officials seized upwards of Rs.50 crore of unaccounted money, of which more than Rs. 30 crore was recovered from Punjab alone. In the last year’s assembly elections, the Election Commission, along with income-tax and other officials, seized Rs.74 crore unaccounted money of which Rs.60 crore was recovered in Tamil Nadu alone. These amounts are just the tip of the iceberg and the actual volumes are certainly much higher. The Election Commission also confirms this and expresses its inability to root out the menace.
Abuse of money power to gain an unfair advantage is affecting the purity of the electoral process. This is also increasingly making the electoral arena the preserve of the rich and corrupt persons who have access to large volumes of funds and it denies a fair opportunity to the honest and good politicians to enter electoral races. A careful look at the list of contesting candidates, particularly in the southern states, reveals that most of them are contractors, real estate players, liquor barons and other individuals who have enriched themselves in recent years through governmental contracts and power brokering deals and have made no contribution whatsoever to in parties fielding them. 
Intensely competitive elections have led to a spending race among candidates on their campaigns to gain an unfair advantage. Increasing role of money power in elections needs to be curbed urgently to facilitate entry of good, honest politicians in the electoral arena. Fixing “reasonable” expenditure limits, strict enforcement of limits, transparent funding, proper accounting of expenditure and strong punitive measures are necessary to make the election process free, fair and equitable. Electoral offences like use of undue influence and bribery at elections shall be made cognizable offences to act as deterrents against persons indulging in such malpractices.
Talking of the ill effects of abuse of money power in elections, the report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, 1999 had observed, “…This has progressively polluted the entire system. No matter how we look at it, citizens are directly affected because apart from compromised governance, the huge money spent on elections pushes up the cost of everything in the country…Electoral compulsions for funds become the foundation of the whole super structure of corruption.”
But voters do not seem to realize this connection between the skyrocketing prices and electoral bribery. Or, they feel totally helpless. It is not a pure coincidence that the prices of cement and steel, decontrolled items, go up before and after every election. It is alleged that many of these companies fund election campaigns of political parties and the beneficiary parties when elected turn a blind eye to the public uproar. This problem of corporate funding of parties cannot be prevented by even state funding of elections as funding can only be provided for legitimate expenses and not for bribing voters. 

Bribery innovations
As the EC is closely monitoring flow of cash during elections, political parties are finding newer and innovative methods to reach bribe money to the voters. In some cases, large volumes are parked in the constituencies several months ahead of polls to avoid large scale shifting of cash during elections. In some cases, hard cash for every registered voter is shoved into the newspapers and delivered along with a voting slip a few days before elections. Some parties have a better ‘targeting’ approach whereby cash delivery is not done in households which have voters who are confirmed supporters of a rival party. 
When distributing large sums of cash becomes difficult due to logistical problems and leakages in distributing money in rural areas, parties and candidates have evolved several creative methods of reaching bribe money to voters. Some candidates have distributed differently coloured tokens representing different denomination to the voters to collect cash from a shop or house either before or immediately after polls. In some states, police vehicles have been used to transfer cash so that no seizures can take place, while power blackouts have been organized in other areas to ensure cash distribution in a hush-hush manner. Speed-post services are also being used to dispatch hard cash directly to the voters. Direct credit to a voter's bank account, payment of utility bills, recharging of mobile phones are other methods used in last year’s Tamil Nadu polls. N. Gopalaswami, former Chief Election Commissioner says, “Votes are bought and sold with planned precision (in Tamil Nadu).” 
Misleading Polls 
Unfortunately, voters in many states have now got so used to this sort of bribery that they are even demanding money from field investigators of polling firms seeking their dummy votes in dummy ballot boxes to ensure confidentiality of their voting preferences. Some press reporters have also told me of instances where community leaders have mistaken them to be political representatives for whom they were eagerly waiting to strike ‘wholesale’ deals before elections.

Interestingly, the increasing role of money power is yet another reason, besides many others, for opinion and exit polls going awfully wrong in projections. For instance, some opinion polls saw a sudden surge in favour of the ruling DMK combine towards the last stages of the Tamil Nadu’s 2011 assembly election campaign. It was later found that the respondents in the polls had voted for parties that bribed them in opinion polls but voted according to their natural preferences in real elections. Curiously, people seem to have found a way of obliging and favouring parties bribing them in opinion polls!

Rather than reducing the menace, the infectious enthusiasm of the Election Commission in curbing use of black money seems to have exacerbated it by first bringing the issue into the public domain in a big way and then expressing its helplessness to curb it. The only sign of reassurance is that the misconceived notion that money power can win polls has been trashed by voters in Tamil Nadu in May 2009 polls. It can only be hoped that the voters in the five states going to polls deliver a similar message. That alone can put to an end the feverish spending race unleashed by political parties to win elections through unfair means. 

G V L Narasimha Rao is a noted political analyst
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Vinod Tuli says:
February 05, 2012

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