TV for a vote? India steps up battle against illegal campaign money

The Election Commission has seized millions in cash and alcohol designed for vote-buying deals. Nearly 30 percent of sitting parliamentarians face criminal charges. There are efforts at reform.

Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters
Voters line up to cast their votes at a polling station at Ayodhya in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh May 7, 2014. Around 815 million people have registered to vote in the world's biggest election.

For the past month, as India’s general elections have unfolded, some government officials and parliamentary candidates across the country have been playing a game of cat and mouse.

The candidates’ aim: to buy as many votes as possible with gifts of all descriptions to potential supporters. The officials’ goal: to stop them.

The Election Commission announced this week that its agents had so far seized $48 million in cash and more than 42 million pints of liquor destined for illicit vote-buying deals. But officials know that more has slipped by them.

“There is still a lot of distance to be covered … to eliminate the deep seated malady” of “the pernicious effect of money power” in Indian elections, acknowledges P.K. Dash, director general of the Election Commission. 

Indian voters are accustomed to being tempted by inducements of all sorts – saris, television sets, even drugs. Police in the northwestern state of Punjab, where drug abuse is rife, last month confiscated 275 lbs of heroin and opium that they said candidates were planning to hand out to voters.

The Election Commission has struck back, setting up "Flying Squads" headed by magistrates to intercept illegal shipments, putting airports, railway stations, and money changers under police surveillance and even sending videographers to tail candidates as they campaign.

Corruption has emerged as a campaign issue since the Aad Aadmi Party (AAP), or "Common Man" Party, rose to prominence on promises to clean up politics. “It is out in the open now,” says Atishi Marlena, a party spokeswoman. “Even ordinary people are asking where the money comes from.”

Black money

The "black money" that buys voter inducements is a key element in the wider corruption that has long gnawed at Indian democracy.

At the root of the problem is campaign finance, says Gilles Vernier, a French scholar here who researches India's political system. “The cost of entering politics is very high, but politics is very remunerative,” he says, and candidates expect to recoup their expenses by selling favors once they win office.

Where the money for election campaigns comes from, nobody really knows. A recent study by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an activist anti-corruption group based in Ahmedabad, found that the source of 75 percent of party funding was not known, mainly because parties are not obliged to account for donations below 20,000 Rupees ($340). They can avoid scrutiny simply by claiming that most of their money comes in such small sums.

Equally worrying, says ADR co-founder Jagdeep Chhokar, is the level of criminality among India’s elected officials. Nearly 30 percent of sitting members of parliament have criminal charges pending against them, his group has found.

In a sign that things may be changing, the man most likely to be India’s next prime minister, Narendra Modi, has pledged that he would push for speedy trials of all suspect members of parliament. And only 17 percent of the current crop of candidates has charges pending, an ADR study has found.

'My criminal' 

Still, in more than half the constituencies that have voted so far, three or more candidates have been charged with criminal acts, says Mr. Chhokar. That means that often “the public does not have a choice.”

But even when they do, corrupt politicians do not necessarily find that their reputation is an electoral burden.

In a country where caste, religious, and clan loyalties still hold strong sway, “voters may think that a candidate is a criminal, but at least he is my criminal,” says Chhokar.

Poor voters also tend to choose candidates whom they trust to be able to channel benefits, such as subsidies, jobs, or roads and schools to their communities. “People want someone who can deliver the goods, even if he is criminal or corrupt,” says Eswaran Sridharan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for the Advanced Study of India here.

“Millions of Indians are dependent on the state and what matters to them is getting resources,” he adds. “They need patronage and they vote for people who can deliver it effectively.”

So long as poor voters support candidates who are seeking office so as to make money and give some of it to their constituents, Dr. Sridharan says, corruption will persist. Only a move “away from patronage democracy towards programmatic politics” based on policies would bring change.

Sings of change?

Such change may be in the offing, suggests Chhokar. “People are taking a more rights-based approach to the government,” he says. “There is a gradual, very slow move away from feeling dependent on government largesse towards demanding things of the government. That is a step away from the politics of patronage.”

Ms. Marlena, the AAP leader, sees a similar trend. Her party won local elections in Delhi last year, she points out, “because people voted for us even though we made no promises of patronage.” She says the AAP is hoping to win 20 seats in the next parliament, though it remains to be seen how wide the party’s appeal is nationwide.

“This is deep seated social change,” insists Chhokar. “Politicians will have to reflect that or they will lose their credibility. Unless political parties mend their ways they will render themselves irrelevant, and that will not be good for democracy or the country.” 

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