Field notes from the election battleground

Fri 15 Mar 2019

The distribution of money to voters during election time is one of the challenges democracy in India faces. Though it has been an established practice, inflation applies here too, and the amounts seem to have increased.

Even the local office-bearers and cadres of political parties will not carry out election work unless the candidate and the high command meet their regular expenses: biryani and liquor. When it comes to the time of elections, biryani becomes a national food.

When I was a student and worked for political parties, a group of local leaders would often visit the areas we were in — in an Ambassador car — to distribute money and posters. Karialayams, or small sheds that were put up temporarily, would function as a party office. Cadres would use the money to buy gum, which was made by boiling tapioca powder in water, to stick the party publicity posters, help in the wall writing and get the snacks. The amount came to a little over Rs. 100 per day.

In the evening we would visit the local hotel and have a sumptuous meal of dosa and rasa vada, washed down with a cup of tea or coffee or sukku coffee. More often than not, Opposition party cadres would also be there seated on the benches facing us. They would never eat what we ate. Only the Communists would spend out of their own pockets.

When the money was spent on the gum, paint and lime for the white wash of the walls, the cadres would make upma and sukku coffee in the kariayalams. At times they would boil tapioca and have it with freshly ground chilli and garlic paste as a side dish. As there was no time frame for the election campaign, our arguments and discussions would go on endlessly. There were times when a senior leader or even the candidate would drop by to greet the cadres. On the day of election, buttermilk or panagam (lemon juice with jaggery) would be distributed to voters. We sat before a transistor radio on the day of counting and listened to the bulletin of All India Radio, a process that would often take two to three days to complete.

In many constituencies, the cadres would be able to predict the candidates based not only their wealth but also their commitment and ability to do party work. So the candidate list always had a mix of wealthy and a committed party workers who depended on the high command for election expenses.

The trend was the same even in the late 1980s. While covering an election, I was engaged in a conversation with a senior Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam candidate, who was once the Mayor of Chennai. He told me that the high command had given him Rs. 4 lakh for the election expenditure and that he could save Rs. 1.75 lakh after meeting the expenses.

He said, “If the party offers me a seat today, I may not be in a position to enter the fray as contesting an election has become a rich man’s business. If I win the elections, it is well and good. If I lose, I will be in debt permanently.”

He was absolutely right. Once an aspirant for the Panamarathupatti constituency showed me a demand draft made out for Rs. 50 lakh when he came for the interview for candidates. He said, “I had to show it to the party leaders to prove how much I am worth.”

His views were echoed by another former Minister. He said, “Today, contesting in an Assembly constituency will cost you at least Rs. 3 crore. Partymen who run businesses, educational institutions and existing MPs and MLAs alone can afford it.” A Lok Sabha constituency covers six Assembly constituencies. So you can calculate the amount.


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