The staircase was dark and dingy. Having left behind a line of SUVs parked outside the North Delhi bungalow, we timidly made our way to the second floor. Huge, muscular men stood guard in the shadows, more for intimidation than security, making themselves visible as we edged past. A garland around his neck, Tyagi Bhaiya sat cross-legged, dusty mattresses scattered around him. “Kaisa laga hamara headquarter? (How do you find our headquarters?)” he asked. Right there, in front of our eyes, he broke down his candidates’ election strategy. According to him, the election for the Delhi University Students’ Union vice-president’s post was a mere formality. “We are winning and you are on the winning side,” he assured us.
What followed was a crash course in the money and muscle power that goes into winning an India election. He promised us crates of liquor bottles, an open tab in the college canteen, transportation for our night campaigning, hard cash and, of course, protection (19 stiches later, we realised its futility. He did pay the hospital bill, though). In return, all we had to ensure was our support base voted for a candidate of his choice. A support base, whose temporary loyalty was partially bought with what he and the others gave us. In the end, to some extent, democracy prevailed as we voted for whom we wanted.
For one week, in the September of 2007, the Delhi University North Campus was turned into a political war zone. Many who were first blooded in the university, slowly made their way up the ranks of different national parties. Years later, their acquired suave and sophisticated demeanours apart, the methods have remained largely the same. Despite the hype around a “new breed of politicians”, in India, if you want to win an election, you have to spend money.
As we enter the last leg of the Lok Sabha election, it is clear the gloves are off and things are getting downright dirty. From development, secularism, youth and women empowerment, the level of public discourse has rapidly deteriorated to personal attacks. Crossing the Lakshman rekha, parties have entered a mudslinging match and personal barbs are a politician’s weapons of choice.
Over the past few weeks, the focus has moved from political alliances to baser, more personal issues, like Narendra Modi’s child marriage, the meteoric rise in Robert Vadra’s fortunes to unsavoury monikers like “the butcher of Gujarat”. Even Digvijaya Singh’s personal dalliances have now taken centrestage in what is increasingly becoming the dirtiest election in Indian political history.
As if a sign of things to come, National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah said in a rally that those who voted for Modi should drown in the sea. Abdullah’s shocker had followed that of Bihar BJP leader Giriraj Singh, who had remarked that those who did not support Modi should leave India for Pakistan. Again, in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi, daughter of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and sister of party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, had reacted to the BJP’s allegations on the growing wealth of husband Robert Vadra by likening the BJP to a “pack of rats running amok”. With each passing day, the shrill is only getting higher. Name-calling and dragging relatives and friends in the muck have replaced the politicians’ “gentlemen’s agreement” as fair game.
Still, rhetoric can only do so much. A politician’s impassioned call to his or her supporters will win headlines. Elections, however, are not won by headlines and airwaves; they are won by money. Thousands of candidates are playing the odds, pumping in crores of money into their constituencies in the hope that they can outbuy the opposition.
Donning the role of the watchdog, the Election Commission (EC) has had to step up its expenditure on monitoring the ongoing polls. Starting 5 March, when the moral code of conduct came into force, the EC has seized cash and goods worth 1,110 crore meant to buy votes. That’s more than 50 percent of the cost incurred by the EC to conduct the election. If we break it down, the EC seized 13 million litres of liquor, the equivalent of 43 swimming pools or one 30ml peg for 75 percent of the 815 million registered voters in India. On top of that, it has also recovered a staggering 20.71 lakh kg of narcotics. Drugs worth as much as 550 crore were seized from Punjab alone. Despite their best efforts, it is estimated that the EC has only seized 10 percent of the total black money in circulation to buy votes.
Vijay*, a ragpicker in the Govindpuri area of south Delhi, explains how the system of bribing voters works. “During the Delhi Assembly polls, each house in our jhuggi was offered 1,000,” he says. “The rates would be more if the family had many voters. My neighbours accepted the money from the BJP. I didn’t, as it meant compromising my bargaining power. If you accept money once, you cannot go to their party office with a complaint. They will simply shoo you away, reminding you about the payment they made to you for the vote.” Vijay says that no political party has offered to pay in the ongoing General Election.
According to estimates, a whopping Rs 30,500 crore will be spent on campaigning in this election, second only to the most expensive US presidential campaign of all time. As a trickle down from this expense, according to communications services firm Madison Media, India’s advertising industry is expected to receive business worth a staggering $800 million. This, however, is like stating the obvious, when you consider that according to media reports, the BJP’s expenditure on advertising (across all media) alone is a staggering Rs 5,000 crore, just a bit less than the Rs 6,000 crore — roughly $1 billion — that the Barack Obama campaign cost in the 2012 US presidential election.
“It is important to understand that while candidates can spend up to Rs 70 lakh on their political campaign, there is no such restriction on political parties,” explains a senior EC official in Delhi. “So what happens is that most of the legal expenditure is shown as party costs, and, therefore, we are unable to put a stop to it.”
However, the two states that top the list of election expenses are far away from the national capital, down south.
At 42 degree centigrade, the afternoon sun was beating down hard on the crowd gathered at a DMK rally in Chennai. The smell of sweat was overpowered only by the pungent odour of dried fish. Oblivious to the heat and the smell, the crowd in their thousands sang and danced. Two humungous hoardings of DMK supremo and former Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi stood facing the stage, where a stocky man, dressed in all-white, sang songs mocking J Jayalalithaa. At some point, a party worker walked up to the microphone and said, “Those who vote for us tomorrow will be given Rs 2,000 each. I know we are not supposed to say this, but you all know how things work.” The speaker laughed as the crowd cheered. The singing and dancing continued.
Tamil Nadu, where cash worth 25 crore and non–cash item worth 51.83 crore were seized by the election authorities, is No. 2 on the list of expenditure- sensitive states. With the BJP making a big push in the south, regional parties — the AIADMK and the DMK — have hit the campaign trail hard in a bid to gain enough seats to be considered major players in the seat-sharing equation that is likely to emerge post 16 May. The result is huge expenditures, a manifold increase compared to the 2009 General Election.
According to mid-level party functionaries, Rs 10- Rs 20 crore had been set aside per candidate per constituency. That means that in the days leading up to poll day, over Rs 1,000 crore cash and gifts such as saris, pressure cookers, cooking vessels and liquor were distributed across the state.
The EC has identified more such expenditure-sensitive states, which include Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Nagaland and Mizoram. Such states have received special attention from the EC. It has set up systems to monitor both legal and illegal expenditures. On the legal front, candidates are made to declare their assets. Then through the campaigning process, their accounts go through three audits. Video teams are sent out by the EC, who capture roadshows, rallies, speeches, posters, hoardings and so on. Video observing teams view this footage, carefully calculating the value of each item. For example, if a rally has 50 flags and each flag costs Rs 10 each, the total cost to the candidate is Rs 500. The costs are totalled and then in a heated audit session (well, at least the session TEHELKA witnessed in Chennai got heated), candidates and EC accountant teams thrash out the total costs.
To monitor the illegal expenditure, the EC has put into place an elaborate system. In Tamil Nadu itself, it set up 5,360 zonal teams, many of which were in place a month before poll day rather than the usual week. Moreover, it has 5,000 village-level whistleblowers, three main checkpoints per constituency, flying squads and static surveillance squads.
The EC control centre is always buzzing. A mini call centre is run by a team of four people who attend to non-stop calls on a set of 10 phones. They receive complaints round the clock and set the system in motion. Once registered, the complaint is fed into the system and the closest flying squad or the static surveillance squad, comprising four-five police officers and an EC official, are dispatched to the area where the complaint is from. The teams are monitored by a GPS tracking system to ensure high productivity. While the EC handles immediate complaints, the police handle the subsequent FIRs and investigation. However, this system has only yielded a 1 percent conviction rate so far.
In stark contrast to the buzz and noise of the control room, the media room is silent. A team of four people, wearing headphones, constantly monitor four large TV screens, while two others sift through a stack of newspapers and online articles. Their role is to crack down on paid media.
“Teams work round the clock to ensure that vigil is maintained,” says a senior EC official. “In a country like India, to ensure the proper functioning of democracy, it is very important to create a level-playing field.” However, he concedes that it is easier said than done. “Monitoring expenditure and the work that goes into it has increased our workload by more than half,” he adds. Despite all the effort, despite the relentless 24×7 monitoring, there are gaps in the system, big enough to let the money leak through.
In south India, gifts and cash are distributed openly. Political parties have thought of newer, creative and inventive methods, making it almost an art form, synonymous with the flair and style of the big action movies of the region. In January 2009, in the Thirumangalam byelection in Madurai district, workers of the then ruling DMK resorted to an ingenious way to distribute the bribe money by inserting envelopes into voters’ morning newspapers. The amount of money varied according to the number of voters in each house. So successful was the effort that it has given birth to a new jargon in the election lexicon. The ‘Thirumangalam formula’ is now stuff of folklore.
As the EC develops new systems to track illegal money transfers, political parties constantly evolve out-of-the-box methods to hoodwink them. Parties route the cash through individuals and organisations, who then distribute them to the intended beneficiaries. This way, no direct link can be established with the party even if the cash is seized. Many parties have resorted to innovative methods such as distributing tiffin boxes with cash in them or paying voters’ electricity bills. In Hyderabad, money was transferred to bank accounts of Aadhaar holders by a Congress MLA, while in the Nellore district, a YSR Congress Party MLA candidate had allegedly hid 5,000 bottles of liquor worth over 5 lakh by burying them in his agricultural field. Gifts are hidden in secret locations well before an election and then distributed in the middle of the night. Lavish parties — not the political kind — are thrown, where booze and biriyani is the preferred menu.
“At times political parties will call in a bogus complaint. This way, they will know where our team will be and they will distribute cash and gifts in another location,” says an EC official, reminding of ploys smugglers used to distract the police in Hindi cinema of the bygone era.
At times though, being innovative has its downside. An MLA candidate in Nalgona learnt this the hard way, when he was caught travelling with wads of cash. In an attempt to get past the security checkposts, he hid the cash in his car’s bonnet. However, due to the engine heat, the money caught fire and the emanating smoke gave him away.
For the EC, the biggest challenge is the fear instilled in their team of volunteers. The local police, teachers and lower bureaucracy, whom the EC lean on heavily during elections, are terrified of the larger- than- life politicians.
In Tamil Nadu, five policemen and an EC official waved down a scooter carrying two men. The officials had been tipped that an AIADMK politician was attempting to buy votes in a DMK stronghold. The two men were searched by the police, who then recovered a voters list from one of them. The team was continuing its search when within a matter of a minute, five more scooters appeared out of nowhere. These men surrounded the officials and confronted them. Soon, one of the men talked into his cellphone and other party workers appeared on the scene. Outnumbered, the officials had to ultimately relent and let the two men go, before making a hasty exit from the scene.
If Tamil Nadu is bad, Andhra Pradesh is on another level altogether. So far, the EC has seized over 110 crore in cash and 77 lakh litres of liquor in the state, putting it on top of the list of expenditure-sensitive states. Expectedly, the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh has given a new twist — and new incentive — to Andhra- Telangana politics. The bifurcation means that there will be a need to develop new infrastructure, a new capital, a new Assembly building, roads and Central funds. So the race is on.
In the past few months, political equations in different regions have changed drastically as parties on both the Telangana as well as the Andhra Pradesh side played the division card to suit their script. While the Congress, in the words of the party’s own members, stands to face a rout in Andhra Pradesh, its fortunes are expected to improve vastly in Telangana. In Andhra, as the favourite to reap maximum rewards, Jaganmohan Reddy is finally seeing hope of becoming the chief minister, an ambition that has been thwarted ever since he left the Congress and was subsequently imprisoned in a disproportionate assets case.
Then there is the Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Out of power for a decade now, the former chief minister is desperate to make a comeback and is leaving no stone unturned to achieve that. Despite the differences in the politics of the two states, one thing has remained unchanged: the ways of winning an election. Year after year, the two regions have been on top of the EC’s list of states that see exuberant spending by political parties.
“The TDP is spending a lot of money, way in excess of what the EC allows,” alleges YSRCP’s Mysura Reddy. “They are getting desperate. I have heard from my sources that Reliance has given them funds.” Reddy is equally brash about dismissing bribery allegations against his own party. “Whatever allegation has been made against YSRCP is yellow journalism,” he adds. However, another senior leader of YSRCP explains that Rs 4 crore is the minimum a party needs to spend these days to contest on an MLA or an MP ticket.
Speaking to TEHELKA on the condition of anonymity, a Congress member from Andhra Pradesh casually mentions the figure of Rs 36 crore as the total expenditure of a Congress candidate in a particular urban seat. “There is no other way,” he explains. “Understand this; it’s a competitive market. Once someone starts it, you just have to keep up with it. I’m told we distributed Rs 11 crore yesterday in a constituency.” He then delivers the shocker. “We stand fourth in terms of expenses,” he says. “The TDP candidate from the same constituency spent Rs 103 crore, much of it in cash and alcohol. These are no elections for the meek.”
True, indeed. Residual Andhra Pradesh has 598 candidates for the Lok Sabha and 3,912 candidates for the Assembly polls that are being held simultaneously. In Telangana, 265 candidates are in the fray for the Lok Sabha and 1,669 candidates are fighting for the Assembly. According to a survey conducted by the Association for Democratic Reforms, over 50 percent of the candidates from Andhra Pradesh are crorepatis and there is a very good reason for that.
There seems to be an established rate card for winning elections in these states. According to media reports, the going rate for a Parliament seat is Rs 50 crore, whereas Rs 15 crore will get you into the Assembly and Rs 15 lakh will get you the post of village sarpanch. This has pushed political parties to look for richer candidates, who then look to make up their investment while in power. This leaves an electorate resigned to corruption, open to the idea of freebies.
Muscle and money power: the two clichés that spring to mind at the mention of Indian elections. The rise in the voter turnout in the ongoing election is being seen as a sign of heightened political awareness in the country, besides a success for political mobilisation. Some see it as a call for a change of the political guard, while others use more glowing terms like “revolution”. And while the coming days promise to bring many more adjectives, some flattering, some objectionable, one area that has remained the same is the way political parties approach elections.
Behind the gloss of the paradigm shift hides the ugly truth: that to win elections in India, you need the two clichés. Whether it is paying people to stand in 45-degree heat in a procession or distributing saris or throwing parties where biryani and booze flow in abundance, gifts and money are still the way to get India inked.
(With additional inputs from Tehelka Bureau)