Largest democracy! Cash for votes

Published: May 5, 2009 - 12:26 Updated: July 1, 2015 - 15:20

Mayawati's formula for distribution of party tickets was replicated by new political outfits as well as the established ones like Congress and BJP. Nearly all parties are alleging that the other is distributing money among voters. Rough estimates suggest that in many constituencies, candidates are willing to spend upto Rs 50 crore of their unaccounted dirty money

Sanjay Kapoor Tirupati/Bangalore

In southern India, all roads seem to lead to the highly venerated shrine of Lord Venkateshwar at Tirupati. For large part of the year, these roads are full of pilgrims who come to Tirupati to seek divine intervention of the deity to change their fortunes.

On April 21, two days before Parliament elections, the road from Chandergiri to Tirupati was low on traffic but high on anticipation. Soon enough, lustily cheered by hysterical crowds, a pilgrim was making a speedy progress atop a truck to the temple town to meet an Election Commission mandated deadline to finish his campaign. Filmstar-turned-chief ministerial aspirant, Chiranjeevi, was racing against time and difficult odds to reach the finish line at Tirupati, from where he was contesting the assembly elections.

Chiranjeevi reached Tirupati and waded into trouble. In a no-quarters given and no-quarters asked elections, his house was surrounded by rival party workers claiming that he was distributing money for elections. Search of the premises did not reveal anything. It was apparent though that the stakes of the election have become so high that the rivals - YS Rajashekhara Reddy (YSR), Chandrababu Naidu and Chiranjeevi - were willing to do anything to win at the hustings.

Nearly all parties are alleging that the other is distributing money among voters. Crores of floating money has been seized by the police, but this is just a little speck of the money storm that is blinding the voters. Rough estimates suggest that in many constituencies, candidates are willing to spend upto Rs 50 crore of their unaccounted dirty money. It boggles one's mind to tot up what this adds up to in 200 high value parliamentary constituencies.

This viciousness and determination to wound each other is quite strange and it is not in consonance with the unfolding political reality that promises a hung House at the Centre and in Andhra Pradesh assembly. It also means that two parties or fronts would have to work together to form a government. Chiranjeevi has fashioned himself as a political outsider capable of ushering change in the society like Barack Obama. There are large hoardings of the filmstar standing alongside the US president -- artificially juxtaposed. He has even posed with a massive poster of Marxist revolutionary legend Che Guevara as backdrop. He is likely to get enough seats to be counted when the business of government formation takes place.

It seems strange, therefore, that the Congress should unleash its hounds on a man whose help may be needed to stop the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from coming to power.

Long before the elections were declared, the Congress did not seem to be in need for crutches in AP. At the national level, too, the grand old party, along with its allies, looked set to emerge as the single largest party and, therefore, form the government once again. All the pre-poll surveys indicated this trend. There was a belief that all the pro-poor programmes like NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), farm loan waiver schemes and its commitment to secularism will ensure that it would do well in those states where it had a robust presence. Tirupati provided enough evidence that there was no real anti-incumbency wave. "The free health scheme and other pro-poor policies have really helped the people," claimed a medical shop owner in Tirupati. Ironically, the state Congress leadership had little faith in their own grassroot programmes and more in the power of money to bend minds.

However, as the elections came closer, the UPA, first, and later the Congress, began to unravel. There was a manifest disconnect in perception among UPA allies about their relative strengths. Lalu Prasad Yadav wanted to give Congress only three seats (out of 40) from Bihar as he thought they had no base. The Samajwadi Party (SP) was not willing to give more than 18 seats out of 80, as the party believed that Congress had little support in UP.

Similarly, YSR did not want to do anything with the Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), claiming that the Congress could manage on its own. They not only parted ways but also spewed venom at each other, indicating that they could do without the other during or after the elections. But the truth is totally different.

Their confidence is flowing out of a simple realisation that the only ally they really need is not ideology, vision or a robust manifesto, but a bulging bank account. New paradigms have been established by realtors, stock market speculators and the new class of nouveau riche who see politics as an opportunity to multiply their wealth. Also, on display are filthy rich politicians and ministers who have benefited from privatisation. The manner in which elections to the Karnataka assembly was won and subsequently, an assembly by-election in Tamil Nadu, made it amply clear that anti-incumbency can be fought and elections could be won if a party had a huge bottomless war chest of ready cash. In January this year, the Tirumangalam by-election in Tamil Nadu saw DMK defeating a "resurgent" AIADMK by a whopping margin. And, how did that happen? Buzz from Chennai says that every voter was paid Rs 6,000 by the winning party, about Rs 2,000 more than the loser. No marks for guessing that these were rural voters in poverty-stricken margins who were bought over by big money politicos.

The Karnataka assembly election was not just a victory for the BJP, but for big bucks, too. Informed sources claim that the infamous Bellary miners bankrolled their efforts in return for virtually a free-run of their mining operations. All appointments of government officials in Bellary take place only after their approval.

The success of cash-for-vote model in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and, earlier, in some parts of UP has given strength to fund managers to sell this plan to all political parties. Ticket distribution by most political parties indicate that the criteria of "winnability" (euphemism for moneybags who can win by spending money) took precedence over integrity, articulation and loyalty to an organisation.

In some ways, Mayawati's formula for distribution of party tickets was replicated by new political outfits as well as established ones like Congress and BJP. The BSP leader gives tickets to mostly first generation achievers from different caste groups who want to make a foray into politics. Most of these tickets are reportedly sold at a phenomenal price. "Mayawati suffers from no legacy problems when it comes to choosing candidates for different constituencies. She can pick anyone. Also, by giving tickets to rich people, who have bought their way to the polls, she ensures that they do not withdraw after taking money from the polls under pressure from other political parties," informed a keen political watcher. Chiranjeevi, too, followed a similar formula.

YSR remained cocky that he would win the elections as he had a good track record as well as a reputation of being a hands-on administrator with unfathomable resources. He conveyed to the party high command that he would bring in about 25 seats to Parliament and also win the assembly. Buoyed by his resourcefulness, the party high command refuses to countenance the fact that Andhra voters can be distracted by competing offers. Naidu, Chiranjeevi have all acknowledged that cash is king in these elections. Every seizure of money that is taking place is blamed on the hardworking filmstar. Naidu has a picture of his atop an ATM machine.

Hardnews met a church friar in a small town on the road to Tirupati, who was weighed down by the moral dilemma of what to tell his faithfuls about the money on offer from different parties. The priest, interestingly, did not dissuade them from taking the money as he realised that no one would listen to him. "They are taking money from all sides but do not know whom to vote for," he explained.

Big bucks are seen as a solution to everything that is wrong about political parties. The late Pramod Mahajan of BJP was called a master of this craft. No wonder, he handled many elections as well as big money for the party. Predictably, BJP kind of suddenly became rudderless after his murder by his own brother.

Congress, moribund for many years in the Hindi belt, is joyously embracing this formula. The party's strategy is to give tickets in UP and Bihar to those who have money to spend and take their election campaign to the next level. If Congress is looking bullish in UP then the reasons are not far too seek.

Compare this to CPI leader Atul Kumar Anjan who is contesting from Ghosi in UP this time, as he did last time. "There is so much money floating that values and politics are turned into dust. One is just swept aside."

Organisational deficiencies like lack of party workers and cadres are being surmounted by employing young graduates to man polling booths as well as for undertaking house-to-house campaigns. Many of those who lost their jobs during the slowdown in different parts of the country have found exciting employment during elections. Many non-political techies are providing a back-up to candidates in Bangalore, an IT hub. The Bangalore war room of Congress candidate, Krishna Byre Gowda, 36, comprises these young workers 'Tweeting' and 'Facebook-ing' their way to voters of the city.

Despite the manifest clarity for many that money works better than any slogan or promise, Congress has not been able to mount a challenge to BJP in Karnataka, MP and Chhattisgarh. Is greater money power of an incumbent an answer to anti-incumbency? Only results will show.

However, this bitterness and refusal to concede an inch, so visible in different parts of the country during the run-up to the elections, is likely to give an edge to the bargaining that would take place once the results are out on May 16. "Small parties would be desperate to get into the government as they have to recover the money they have spent. There will be no ideology. Only money will speak."

Indeed, managers of the Congress, BJP and even the Sharad Pawar-led enterprise are all thinking that they would be able to prove their numbers if they get a call from the lady sitting atop the Raisina Hill.

Mayawati's formula for distribution of party tickets was.... Sanjay Kapoor Tirupati/Bangalore

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