PALINI R. SWAMY writes from Bangalore: No longer are elections spectacles.
For the uninitiated, everyday life in Karnataka appears to be no different except for two things. First, Bangalore’s notorious traffic is manageable these days, as the political types have been camping in their constituencies.
Second, police chowkis along the highways, especially closer to towns and cities where all the private vehicles are checked for cash and gifts for the voters. According to the most recent estimate, the money confiscated across Karnataka is more than Rs 16 crore.
So, there is this reality constructed and maintained by the Election Commission.
Its rules have taken the pageantry out of elections. No longer nominees can take out a procession to file nominations or strut around with thousands of followers or hundreds of vehicles. In fact, any vehicle used for campaigning will have to be registered.
It’s simple these days: there are severe restrictions on visible campaigning.
Missing are the auto-rickshaw mounted loudspeakers. The norm today appears to be occasional rallies featuring star campaigners especially national leaders, and more frequently, road shows featuring state leaders and cinema stars in open vehicles.
More significantly, each candidate is restricted to spending only Rs 16 lakh.
Perhaps, there isn’t a single constituency wherein a candidate will have a reasonable chance of competing and retaining his deposit if he were to stay within this farcical limit.
However, that doesn’t stop any candidate from officially submitting accounts, which will be far less than sixteen lakhs. The average spending by each winning candidate across Karnataka will be at least one hundred times more.
So, that creates an alternative, parallel reality, the one political parties, candidates, and indeed, even the voting public inhabit. Here notionally the EC’s authority is recognized but the only way to earn the trust of the electorate is to blatantly violate most of EC regulations.
Professional politicians will not complain against each other for obvious reasons. They are all playing the same game.
The smaller players say the leftist groups or the anti-corruption warriors like the Loksatta don’t have the capacity or perhaps even the commitment to document violations and lodge complaints with the EC.
Consider this second reality for a moment.
For the past month, newspapers have been reporting on all the freebies distributed surreptitiously by every politician.
Money is the obvious good and we all know that large sums will have to be spent to pay for campaigners, voters and everybody in between.
Since 2008, politicians have had to be very creative in transporting cash. So, there are numerous stories about motorbike riders carrying money or professional donkey/ black sheep herd owners being couriers transporting cash from one place to the next.
Then there are services and goods that are offered and accepted.
# Tankers carrying water.
# JCBs and tractors to do any kind of earth work in your field, either freely or at heavily subsidized rates.
# Borewell rigs to dig borewells.
# Books for students.
# Access to government welfare programs and services – from old age pension to various subsidies that the state government offers; from subscription to Yashasvini medical insurance scheme to free ration from government ration shops.
# Pressure cookers.
# Set-top boxes for televisions.
# Pilgrimages and trips to constituents.
All kinds of groups and associations too are rewarded liberally.
# Temples are built and renovated during elections if only because all the candidates will make contributions.
# Travel across the state and you will find hoardings for sports tournaments sponsored by politicians. We estimated that the budget for some of these events could run into tens of lakhs since the top prize in a cricket tournament in Shimoga was Rs. 75,000.
Obviously our list isn’t complete and the reader can add more.
However, here is the important point to note. Election results are determined in this second reality. The Election Commission has little sway over this reality and one could even argue that an efficient money spending operation precedes everything else.
The presence of star campaigners – be it Rahul Gandhi or Advani or Narendra Modi – does very little to actually sway the electorate. At best, these stars rouse the party base and raise the enthusiasm of the party cadre.
Politics has changed in this regard in the last two decades. Without this efficient ground level operation that distributes gifts, makes compelling local arguments and mobilizes voters, no candidate shall win.
And that’s true for a political party winning elections as well.
In another significant respect, a politician shows his prowess during the elections. His ability to break rules and distribute as much during the elections is actually an indicator of his ability to manipulate rules and government machinery once he is in power.
While we don’t want to sound cynical, the voting public actually considers that quality an essential trait for a leader.
The Election Commission can’t do much about the second reality. It has never had much control on that reality anyway.
2013 election coverage