Cashing in on elections
A sizeable section of voters in four States and one Union Territory going to the polls seems to be literally cashing in on the electoral process. In Assam and West Bengal, the first phase of polls has already been held; Tamil du, Puducherry and Kerala will vote on May 16. All the results will be out three days later. But Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan has already seen something in the poll-bound States which is “not normal”, in his words. It is a massive surge in cash circulation to the tune of over Rs 60,000 crore. Rajan has no ready explation as to why so much cash is suddenly changing hands; he believes the phenomenon needs looking into and be understood better. Overall, latest RBI data has shown a sharp 48 percent increase in currency circulation at Rs 2 lakh crore for the fortnight which ended on March 18. Being the RBI Governor, Rajan may have thought better about adding fuel to widespread allegations about cash-for-votes which has been the bane for every poll season. But the Election Commission has reported a total seizure of Rs 32 crore in the poll-bound States by March end, which is surely the tip of the iceberg. Tamil du figured right on top with Rs 15.19 crore confiscated, followed by West Bengal with Rs 5.64 crore, Assam with Rs 5.43 crore and Kerala with Rs 5.27 crore. To keep a sharp lookout on movement of uccounted cash, the EC has roped in the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) and the Fincial Intelligence Unit (FIU); it has appointed ‘expenditure observers’ drawn from Income Tax, Excise, Customs and other departments to curb black money flow in election time. It is however obvious that major political parties are not to be deterred in doling about cash to bribe voters, using tricks both overt and covert. They also spend substantial money to keep their armies of cadres and workers in good humor, giving them good pocket money and buying fuel to run their vehicles. So ‘dotions’ from businesses and illegal syndicates are laundered by political parties come election time, with the rich donors coming in later to grab their pay-offs.
In Assam, the EC has lodged cases against the likes of Gautam Roy, Bharat rah and a relative of one of the Behali contestants Rupak Sharma for allegedly distributing cash among voters. Media reports are rife with news of cash handouts in late night, clandestine political meetings in rural and tea estate areas in the State. But despite occasiol visuals captured with mobile phones and aired by TV channels, hardly any concrete action is taken against offenders who get away with routine denials. Considering the level dole politics in Assam has reached by the cultivation of large beneficiary bases, one shudders to think how brazen outright cash handouts will get in the coming days. It has already become a huge mece in Tamil du, where a pernicious culture has been built up of voters expecting goodies, freebies or cash during election time, with political parties gleefully obliging. Not only are currency notes slipped in under various covers, even coupons or vouchers are being distributed to be encashed later, while flying squads are bought off. There are unofficial estimates that as much as two-thirds of the Tamil du electorate may get cash handouts of 2,000 to Rs 3,000 each from various parties, which translates into a whopping Rs 6,000-9,000 crore overall. This strategy, of course, is not fool-proof — or else ruling parties would never lose! But corruption of the electoral process must be seriously taken, as it allows established parties to play the field while shutting the door on new parties. This in turn forces some fincially weak parties to field in larger numbers rich (crorepati) candidates with dubious backgrounds. There was much indigtion in the run up to the Delhi assembly polls last year when Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief ministerial candidate Arvind Kejriwal called upon voters to take money from big political parties but vote for his party — but he did have a point. In a State like Assam, the effect of cash-for-votes could be felt particularly in seats witnessing multi-cornered contests, where the winning margin may only be a few hundred votes. Cash-for-votes needs to be tackled firmly, lest the culture of demanding share of ill-gotten spoils of politicians takes firm root in the State.