Chennai: ‘Money, money, money/ Must be funny/ In the rich man’s world.’ So sang ABBA, the Swedish pop band that rocked the musical world in the 1970s. The same money, in today’s politician’s world, has seemingly become an essential campaign tool when it comes to facing an election in Tamilnadu, going by the routine reports on seizures and allegations of police vehicles being used for transport of cash.
But how did the covetous ‘currency note’ come to play a definite role in the hustings? When did the Tamilnadu voter start receiving cash in lieu of his precious vote? It may be difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the practice but it can be told with utmost certainty that distribution of money to voters has now come to stay as an integral part of the multi-layered campaign process, at least in Tamilnadu, even if it is illegal, immoral, inappropriate and a shame on democracy.
Nothing swings the voter in favour of a particular party or candidate better than a crisp, pink Rs 2,000 note, says a young party worker in a district, who is deeply involved in campaigning. He has been seeing it happening since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when he first came into the electoral arena.
He would not point fingers at any one party nor would he like to identify himself but avers that money is the best way to garner women’s votes. A woman rarely betrays and never goes back on the word that she had given to someone. Men may collect the money and vote for someone of their choice.
Old-timers say that the practice started in an innocuous fashion in the earlier years to encourage daily wage earners go to the polling booth instead of work. Some cash-rich candidates, through their agents at the grassroots-level, would compensate for the wage loss the voter might otherwise suffer by exercising his franchise and perhaps give him an incentive in the form of a quarter bottle of cheap liquor and a packet of biryani on the day of polling.
However, people with ideological inclinations and party affiliations, even if they were poor, would not fall for the charm of money or biryani or liquor, while it was also not sure if the vote was cast in favour of the candidate who paid for it.
So, what started as a casual inducement has now assumed the proportion of an organised edifice that has survived the flying squads, poll observers and other law-enforcing authorities in the past three or four elections and now functioning efficiently.
The covert operation is so structured that it is an open secret that no one will talk about. But, as some politicians say, the distribution of cash often happens at night though daylight is no deterrent.
The party or the candidate paying voters appoint grassroots-level functionaries across the constituency. One functionary will be in charge of a street or two and will have the details of each and every family residing within his jurisdiction in a notebook.
The details include gender, party affiliation or support and the possibility of swing. Based on the individual assessment of the functionary, the amount to be paid to the individual or the family is decided and the money is passed on surreptitiously and rapidly.
As a villager said, “It all happens in a wink. When you wake up you can see the grandmother sleeping on the open verandah in the opposite house counting cash.”
As observers say, the institutionalising of money distribution has trapped all the political parties in it. There are large sections of voters who will vote only for the party that pays. What if both the parties pay? Well, at situations like that, the women decide on how to share the votes in the household. The party that paid more would get more votes and less number of votes would go to the party that paid less, thus not betraying anyone.
The functionaries on the ground collect the cash from the district or division-level party office-bearers discreetly. In this election, for at least one political party, the functionaries have to provide proof of payment to the party higher-ups. So, they used a note book in which they stick photocopies of voter ID cards of the payees and write their phone numbers, besides mentioning the amount paid.
Yes, payment varies. If the functionary is not sure of the particularly family or individual favouring his candidate, they just pay a token amount. Similarly, surefire voters are also paid only a small amount. Only those who would swing definitely are wooed with higher amounts.
What about the family members of rival party members and open supporters? In the earlier years, they would be spared. But now, even their wives, mothers, daughters, daughters-in-law, grandmother, nieces and so on are targeted.
Most of the time they fall for the lure of the lucre, says a ground-level worker. What happens if a family or individual does not turn up at the polling booth at all? The booth agents would alert those workers who go out and pay the money and they, in turn, would turn up at the doors, calling out for the people to come to the booth.
Thus, in a rural milieu, where everybody knows everybody, the money distribution happens smoothly without any hitch and the parties are able to reap 80 per cent benefit, though it is not confined to the villages.
The practice has very much spread to the small towns and also the lower middle-class and lower class localities in the cities. But across the State, those collecting the money have no remorse or guilt and their typical declaration is: ‘After all, it’s our money.’
So, as a political activist said, “Now, once the elections are announced, people wait for the arrival of the money distributor at their doors, just guessing what would be the cost of their vote this time.”
Apart from cash, food distribution has also changed its style now. In earlier days, the candidates would be serving food either at their homes or in some common place regularly and anyone could drop in. But now the local party workers enter into an arrangement with restaurants, where people could eat whatever they want, leaving the bill to be paid by the candidate later on.