Mocking democracy: TN’s dirty, open secret that seems to bring no shame

A Tablighi Jammat congregation in Delhi last month emerged as a major coronavirus hotspot after many of its participants carried the infection to several parts of the country.

After the 2016 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections were declared, a political leader privately accused the Election Commission of allowing a “mockery of democracy”. His party was contesting alone and he was referring to how it had been swamped by the distribution of cash to voters by the DMK-led and AIADMK-led fronts. This election, he is part of one of the fronts.

Distributing cash to voters is a well worked out process and is sustained and organized on a mass scale. Election Commission officials admit that hundreds, if not thousands, of crores of rupees are distributed in ever ingenious ways to voters.

Cash distribution is integrated into the cultural practices of the state. Voters are offered cash on a plate that would have the picture of a god or goddess. And voters take the money after promising to vote for that particular candidate. The picture of the god or goddess apparently seals the contract.

It is routine for women to line up at campaign stops of leaders with pots and pans from the kitchen. They do “aarthi” for the politician and expect to get money for doing the aarthi. After the politician leaves the scene, his or her minions hand over the currency notes to the women. Sometimes this happens in the presence of the candidate, too.

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The politician here is always one step ahead and finds novel ways to dodge law enforcement. Election officials keep talking about new, stringent measures in place to curb the menace but say that unless people stop taking money there is no way the practice would stop. But they accept that cash distribution is the worst form of voter inducement.

Cash distribution only plays into the politics of the day. It is rare to find a crackdown on a party not opposed to or friendly with the ruling dispensation at the Centre. The crackdown becomes yet another political stick to beat the opponent. In the case of Vellore, it is the DMK that has been at the receiving end. And the party has been virulently critical of the Modi regime. In the case of RK Nagar in 2017, too, the Centre was trying to take control of the AIADMK regime after the passing of Jayalalithaa. The cancellation helped to browbeat the AIADMK.

Cash distribution ensures that only the two big parties, DMK and AIADMK, have any chance at the hustings. It strikes at the root of democratic choice. It makes corruption par for the course, and anti-corruption a useless plank since the voters themselves are corrupt and complicit. It brings in a damaging air of cynicism since voters seem to be saying, “Well you politicians make so much money, you can part with some of it.” It recognizes, even institutionalizes the concept that after the elections the politicians will continue with their corruption. In the 2014 elections, an AAP candidate for a Chennai seat – a well-meaning, socially conscious idealist – was shocked to find that voters were openly demanding to get paid. They asked him how much money he was going to give them.

But what is often missed is cash distribution is a sign of despair among voters. It brings the transactional relationship between the politician and the voter to the lowest level.

The politician makes promises and attempts to deliver on them after election. This is the ideal scenario. But when politicians make little or no attempt to solve chronic problems that appear solvable, then despair sets in.

Electoral choices seem to make little difference to governance. The middle class takes the easy way out by staying out of the electoral process. For the poor, however, demanding and taking cash is a way to make their vote count. It is a reassertion that they matter.

During the campaign at Sivaganga, voters often loudly and unanimously told visiting leaders that the chronic water problem at Sivaganga needed to be solved. The candidates promised to help implement a decades-old scheme to bring Cauvery surplus water to serve parched lands in the state including Sivaganga.

Last year, though there was little rain within the state, Cauvery was in spate due to good rains in Karnataka. Dams were overflowing and it was a sight that warmed the hearts of many Tamils. In a space of a little over 20 days in July-August, some 100 tmcft of water was let out into the sea. The water continued to be let out into the sea for many more weeks. To give an idea of how much water this is, Chennai needs some 12 to 15 tmcft of water every year. One hundred tmcft would have fed Chennai for another six years even if the city had received no rain.

No major dam, reservoir or any project to store the surplus Cauvery water has been implemented since Independence. If only some work had been done, Sivaganga folks would have got an assured supply of drinking water and perhaps enough water to raise one crop a year. If wishes were horses…

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