Governance now

Something bizarre happened earlier this year at IIT Madras. Ceiling fans and mixer-grinders, among others, were being distributed on the campus. Many staff members went “eagerly” to receive their share, according to Dr Sudarsan Padmanabhan, an associate professor at the premier institution and a key member of an NGO that looks after poll practices.

The ‘gifts’, of course, came courtesy a political party. Welcome to the culture of pre-poll freebies – as the handouts are commonly called – in Tamil Nadu, often seen as the state that has deftly mastered the art.

As the mercury rises and the sun beats down harsher in most parts of the state, the season of hot idlis, crisp dosas and filter coffee is taking a slight time-out. For the people of Tamil Nadu, this is the season for biryani – a taste they have seemingly developed over the past several elections.
Here’s why: as political parties of all hue and shade hold rounds of rallies and public meetings, the most effective method of ‘connecting’ with the voters is to hand out biryani packets, liquor bottles and cash. This is just to ensure sizeable turnouts at public meetings; those who have watched the poll scene in the state over the years say the freebie time starts much before that.

Governance Now decided to check one pre-poll rally to get a glimpse of the big picture.

On a searing early-April afternoon at Tiruchirapalli, the hottest city in Tamil Nadu, Leela, 42, who lives in Pudukkottai, an hour and half run from Tiruchirapalli (also called Tiruchi or Trichy), said she had arrived at the city’s G-Corner ground in buses arranged by them. “We were given a packet of biryani each and they also promised us some cash once we return home.”

By “they”, Leela was referring to AIADMK, the ruling party, which had brought in thousands of the 50,000 to 60,000 people gathered for chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s rally at the ground later that afternoon in similar fashion. Leela said she had come along with Periakka, 45, and 15 other women who are part of a self-help group in Pudukkottai.

As people began to stream in for the late-afternoon public meeting starting up at 11 am – several people we spoke to said the promise of money, food and other goodies had lured  them to attend the event. Some had travelled considerable distance. Most came by private buses and trucks, clearly hired and paid for by the AIADMK.

With tens of goods-carrying vehicles ferrying people seen on Tiruchirapalli roads through the morning and early afternoon, both small and large commercial vehicles were used to bring people to the venue. Rules, though, bar ferrying people in such vehicles since it risks lives.

At the venue Arumugam, 52, said it was a struggle to remain there till 3.30 pm, with Jayalalithaa’s special aircraft landing at the helipad constructed nearby only after 4.30 pm. Arumugam said he was brought in a van from Jeyapuram in Tiruchirapalli district and was promised  `100 and food by the ruling party’s branch secretary. “But after bringing me to the venue they absconded without keeping their promise”, he said, accusingly. For him, the promises were natural – “we are getting some gift or the other from our politicians right since the days of MGR (MG Ramachandran).” MGR is the filmstar-turned-politician who founded AIADMK and was a three-time CM of Tamil Nadu.

For fellow traveller Murugan, 50, the commute from Pudukkottai to the venue was worth it; after all, he got his “due”:  `100 and a food packet before he was made to board the bus.

It is another matter that many began leaving the venue halfway through Jayalalithaa’s address. Or in there perhaps lies the telltale of the freebiue culture of Tamil Nadu politics. Those brought by buses, though, had to wait till the chief minister’s speech was over to be dropped back home.
Some half an hour from the venue was Jayalalithaa’s assembly constituency, Srirangam, where Ravi, Anjala and Ammu were waiting for the cash and goodies, which they said was delayed this time. “This time we have not received anything yet. We are eagerly waiting. Whoever comes and gives us something we will vote for them,” Ravi said. The trio then fished out their voters’ identity card and ration card to announce that they were legitimate voters.

The Thirumangalam formula

With election campaign peaking ahead of April 24, when voters in all 39 constituencies of the state and the lone seat in Puducherry exercise their franchise, cash and liquor – besides sarees for women and biryani parties in the constituencies – are dominant this time as well, though in a relatively furtive manner since the election commission (EC) is keeping a close watch. But the EC’s watch notwithstanding on Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, which has a monopoly over wholesale and retail vending of alcohol in the state, insiders claim the ruling party hoarded liquor bottles much in advance. These bottles are only now being distributed in constituencies, according to those in the know of things.

With heavy resources deployed by both the ruling party and the opposition outfits, observers say the entire state machinery is busy in carrying cash to the constituencies.

According to people who have studied elections over the years, the practice started during the Thirumangalam by-election in Madurai district in January 2009, when workers of the then ruling DMK resorted to ingenious ways to distribute bribe money. The DMK activists reportedly hoodwinked security officials and workers of rival political parties, giving birth to the term ‘Thirumangalam formula’.

This time, parties have gone online with their ‘gifts’, transferring money to people’s bank accounts, it is learnt.
So what can be done to address the situation?

Tamil Nadu’s chief electoral officer Praveen Kumar said the EC is facing a “serious challenge” in handling the menace. About actions being taken, he said some cases have been registered against party workers, including those owing allegiance to the ruling AIADMK, for carrying out such activities. “Once a case is registered it goes to law enforcement agencies for further action; issuing chargesheet and other procedures take time,” Kumar said.
Explaining difficulties in conducting elections in the state, former Tamil Nadu chief electoral officer Naresh Gupta (posted in Chennai from 1998 to 2001 and then from 2005 to 2010) said: “We had a difficult time in handling the elections here. Distribution of cash and gifts is not helpful for anyone.”
Recalling one incident, he said civil servants working as under-secretaries to the state government would get leave from work in order to get television and other goodies being distributed as freebies by different political parties. “It has become a part of (the political) culture. This is against the principle of economics, and such a culture only makes people lazy,” he said.

EC’s hands tied

Stressing that this culture of offering freebies to voters is on a constant rise, former chief election commissioner N Gopalaswami said nobody really could put a stop to it until somebody from Chennai approached the high court, and then the supreme court, against this. But by that time too many things were offered by too many states as freebies, he added.

“You cannot take any action (against the parties) since it is part of their manifestos, and you cannot prevent it,” he said.
It is only of late that the supreme court had asked the election commission to hold meetings with political parties. “Meetings were held but the political parties opposed (EC’s planned move to put a stop on freebies), saying the election commission should not dictate what goes into the manifesto,” Gopalaswami said. “The commission has given a kind of advice, saying that political parties must state what the financial implication (of such freebies) is.”
Stressing that all this, especially from the party in power, comes from the state exchequer, and thereby the taxpayers’ money, Gopalaswami said, “The party actually is incidental to governance; it doesn’t own the government. It is especially (rampant) in Tamil Nadu; elsewhere it possibly takes place once in a while. But in this state it is an exercise in deception – you print your party symbol on the vehicles, on water bottles.”

Suggesting a way out, the former CEC said: “I think any government scheme using a party symbol should be banned and prohibited because the money (spent on it) is not coming from the coffers of the political parties. It is taxpayers’ money and you cannot continue to make merry with this money. 
“Common Cause, a registered society, has moved court and hopefully they will take up this issue as well.”

Talking about the electoral integrity campaign started in Tamil Nadu to sensitise voters, former bureaucrat MG Devasahayam, convenor of Chennai-based Forum of Electoral Integrity, said this campaign came up in the wake of institutionalisation of electoral corruption through cash, freebies and liquor distributed during by-election to the Thirumangalam assembly constituency.

The forum was formed as a civil society organisation in August 2010 after the DMK, which was then in power, applied its cash-for-votes formula in Thirumangalam, and subsequently announced that it would implement the ‘formula in future, too. According to Devasahayam, the party tried applying this formula in Pennagaram by-election in March 2010, as well as the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. There was a need to combat this open brandishing of money power and thus the forum was set up by roping in senior civil servants, police officers, former chief election commissioners, senior lawyers and youth groups, he said.

“We started interacting with students on campuses in urban and rural areas, spreading messages on voting rights and the dignity of election and democracy,” Devasahayam said. “In the 2011 assembly elections we observed that political parties came up with new methods to bribe voters. We intensified our campaign and started addressing people directly, telling them that they were selling their basic right of voting, and through that selling all their rights. That is why, we told them, no MP or MLA returns to you or looks at you (after elections); they know they have bought your vote.” 
The forum was working with the EC in an informal manner till the last assembly election and has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the commission this time.

Dr Sudarsan Padmanabhan, Tamil Nadu Election Watch and Association for Democratic Reforms coordinator, said: “This time there is an effective tool - NOTA (none of the above) button on EVM. Though as of now it is only a ‘Right to Refuse’, we are encouraging people to exercise this right, as this is the first step to refuse people who are corrupt, incompetent and are criminals. We are hopeful that many youths will exercise this right.”

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