Rajammah, a homemaker who lives in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, had unexpected visitors last week when three volunteers from one of India’s myriad political parties arrived to distribute freebies to the women residents of her village – colourful saris and steel crockery.
The next day, a representative from another party handed out 2,000-rupee notes (S$40) and bed covers to the people of Pasupathipalayam village. He also promised to build a school and a hospital if his party won.
“Though I accepted the gifts, I’m not sure which party to vote for,” said the 56-year-old, who asked to be identified by one name. “They make all kinds of promises at election time and then forget about us later.”
Over 3,000km away, in the Sonitpur district of the northeastern state of Assam, Somit Ganguly, a tea estate worker, was thrilled to have received two liquor bottles and the equivalent of about US$50 (S$67.32) from a candidate in the coming elections.
“He didn’t ask for votes directly,” the 48-year-old said. “He just said, ‘Take care of us and we’ll take care of you’.”
As four Indian states – Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and West Bengal – as well as the union territory of Puducherry prepare for legislative assembly elections that start next month, political parties are scrambling to woo voters with everything from kitchen gadgets, utensils and apparel to home loans and promises for jobs.
Everything seems fair game in the battle for ballots in the world’s largest democracy, which has a long and entrenched tradition of bribing voters.
“Politics has become hugely competitive in India,” said Nitin Sheshadri, a New Delhi political scientist. “With the economy opening up to overseas investors with deep pockets, there’s big money involved as everyone from conglomerates to local businessmen want a stake in the winning candidate.”
A dramatic surge in the number of political parties in India has also increased the stakes. There are now 2,698 registered parties in the country, according to the Election Commission of India, compared with just 55 during the first Indian elections in 1952.
In addition, incumbent candidates for a number of high-profile regional political parties, such as the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal state, face growing pressure from candidates of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi , which has launched an aggressive nationwide campaign to capture more votes.
The increase in political competition has come with a surge in campaign spending. India’s 2019 general elections were the world’s costliest at US$8 billion, according to a report by the Kerala-based Centre for Media Studies. Half of the spending was by the BJP. Since 1998, the report said, election expenditures have risen sixfold.
Opaque rules regarding campaign financing have also fueled the vote-buying culture in the country, with political parties often accepting contributions from dubious sources.
In 2017-18, 53 per cent of the donations to India’s top six national parties came from undisclosed sources, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms.
Days before the 2018 legislative elections in the southern state of Karnataka, authorities uncovered cash and “other inducements” worth more than US$20 million in what was described as a “record-breaking” haul, according to a BBC report, which also noted that campaign workers for some political parties had been transferring money to bank accounts of voters in exchange for their votes.
Although critics have largely slammed such practices as corrupt and India’s Supreme Court stated in a 2013 decision that “Freebies shake the root of free and fair elections to a large degree”, election-time handouts are not expressly prohibited.
Under Section 123 of India’s Representation of the People Act, giving out freebies to voters is not regarded as a “corrupt practice” because they can be interpreted as “promises made” in a party’s political manifesto.
Sheshadri, the political scientist, said the handouts that typically come with campaigning were “an inextricable part of Indian politics” even though they violate “the sanctity of elections”.
“Here, voters are as culpable as the politicians,” he said, noting that politicians giving gifts and cash was a more “tangible and effective” way to win votes than, for example, promising better roads and other infrastructure.
India is not the only country in Asia where electoral handouts regularly occur, according to a survey by Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, which asked nearly 20,000 people across 17 countries whether they had ever been offered a bribe in exchange for votes during national, regional or local elections.
Nearly one in seven of the respondents said they had been offered gifts, with respondents in Thailand and the Philippines reporting the highest rates of voting inducements, at 28 per cent, followed by Indonesia at 26 per cent and India trailing at a relatively modest 18 per cent.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.