The Election Commission has countermanded elections in two constituencies in Tamil Nadu following the seizure of a large amount of money and documents suggesting largescale distribution of cash among voters. This may be a story of two constituencies but on one issue there is wider agreement: Parties with deep pockets are devising newer ways to bribe voters. This poses a challenge to the EC, which until now was focused on the more open and violent attempts to distort the poll process, like booth-capturing to facilitate bogus voting. In a way, the cash-for-vote phenomenon may be said to have gained ground because of the EC’s remarkable success in making the poll process free of external attempts to hijack it. The commission’s successful crackdown on strong-arm methods — aided by a vigilant media — may have forced political parties to explore newer ways and means in an attempt to manipulate outcomes from within.
This phenomenon has seemed more prominent in Tamil Nadu. For instance, over Rs 112 crore has been seized from the state since the model code of conduct came into effect in March as against Rs 24 crore from Kerala during the same period. In Thanjavur constituency in Tamil Nadu, the EC found evidence that one candidate alone had allegedly distributed at least Rs 6 crore among voters. The cash seizure this time is four times the amount circulated during the 2014 general election. Referred to as the Thirumangalam formula — in a by-election in Thirumangalam in 2009, the DMK allegedly paid all voters Rs 5,000 each and won the seat with a comfortable majority — cash bribes are now even seen by many as a legitimate method to win the loyalty of voters. Tamil Nadu’s brand of welfare politics may have helped in creating a more permissive environment that ends up legitimising this tendency. Over the years, the state government’s basket of goods to be distributed to potential voters has expanded from legitimate largesse like social welfare schemes of free education, mid-day meals and other such benefits to freebies like saris, mangal sutras, fans, mixer-grinders, festival kits, bicycles and so on. The AIADMK manifesto this time has even promised subsidies for motorcycles. Increasingly, important lines are being blurred between what constitutes a legitimate public good and what is an inducement or an outright bribe.
The best efforts of the EC — and it has large achievements on this score — to clean up the poll process are likely to fail unless there is a more open conversation about the nature of campaigns and their limits. Expensive poll campaigns are threatening to distort electoral democracy with cash-rich parties relegating less moneyed groups. While elections in India are acknowledged to be generally free and fair, public trust and faith in their credibility requires that each and every aberration be addressed.