Hunt for freebies leads into India polls

City talk | Bhuvan Bagga 16 Apr 2019

It's a game of cat and mouse for Naresh and his "flying squad," stopping cars, trucks and scooters to hunt for goodies being handed to voters in India's mammoth election that has just started.

The illegal doling out of everything from alcohol to kitchen appliances has long been a feature of the vast undertaking that is Indian elections. But it's getting worse.

Naresh (not his real name) is part of one of 60 "mobile flying squads" in just one district in southern Tamil Nadu, where parties are notoriously generous at election time.

"We never really know how our day will end," says Naresh, a khaki-uniformed policeman, as he and a team of officials check around the prosperous industrial town of Coimbatore in two SUVs. "There are days when we get nothing. But on others, a timely tip-off by rivals or by plain perseverance and luck we may find cash, a stash of alcohol or other freebies."

Over several hours, and in constant touch with a command center, they stop dozens of vehicles and comb through the interiors, even under moped seats, but this time it's in vain. But a day earlier another squad impounded a vehicle packed with sarees. Others have seized booze, watches, juicers, mixers, or just hard cash.

And while Tamil Nadu is a hotspot for such practices, it's a nationwide phenomenon in the country of 1.3 billion people voting between April 11 and May 19.

In late March, authorities said that they had already seized 1.5 billion rupees (US$22 million), 4.4 million liters of liquor and even precious metals and illegal drugs.

From the moment the election was announced in mid-March, special laws took effect banning Indians from carrying large amounts of money, gold or silver without proper supporting documentation.

Police and railway staff are also granted temporary powers to seize items they believe are being used to try to sway voters.

The phenomenon may not be new, but observers say it has only become more acute in recent years, giving a huge advantage to richer candidates.

A report by the Association for Democratic Reforms, which is pushing for electoral transparency, says 32 percent of candidates in the first phase of voting on Thursday are multimillionaires.

"Our statistics prove candidates with criminal backgrounds and money have a much better chance," says Anil Verma, head of its national election watch unit. "The unlimited flow of money and its use to induce voters is increasing, and we can see it with the nationwide cash seizures."

Kumar, a Coimbatore resident, says he always rejected any inducements offered by local candidates.

"The parties give us 500 rupees each, asking us to vote for their party. I tell them that I don't need money to vote and that I'd vote for whoever I want."

But he's likely just one side of the coin.

Another ADR poll found 41 percent of respondents felt freebies were an important part of the election process - even though almost 73 percent know it is illegal.

"Many politicians say voters themselves demand freebies and they feel even more pressured if any rival offers them," says Verma. "It's a temptation many can't resist. You can understand the economically weak doing it, but in some Indian states, including Tamil Nadu, even the middle classes often take the money and the freebies."

Meanwhile, others say that while they might take what is offered they won't necessarily fulfill their side of the bargain.

Says Coimbatore cab driver Senthil Kumar: "Why refuse when they offer us money? We can still go and vote for the candidate we like. I tell my family to take the money but vote for whoever they want."


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