It is an open secret that political parties bribe voters with food and alcohol in the run up to the polling day, and cash is distributed -- often door-to-door -- in the hinterland.
The total cash seized in Tamil Nadu, which went to the polls in the summer, crossed ₹100 crore, the highest ever in the history of Indian elections."Cash donations" comprise nearly 75 percent of the total party funds and most of these are from unknown sources.
But after the demonetisation of ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes, many are wondering how this time honoured tradition will be carried out in the five poll-bound states. While candidates with presumably large stacks of cash are having a panic attack after Modi government's surprise announcement, interested onlookers are in a wait-and-watch mode. But what is clear is that large parties with more "diversified sources" of donations will hurt less than smaller or regional parties which tend to have cash-intensive operations.
One option for the parties would be to distribute the money before 31 December, which is the deadline set by the government for people to get their old notes changed into the new ones. But that would be at least a month before Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur go to the polls. It certainly would not have the same impact as handing out cash on the night before polling, and there are no eternal loyalties when it comes to political bribery.
In fact, the former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi told The Indian Express that candidates had actually started bribing voters early after the Election Commission began cracking down on bribery ahead of the polls. "I think this decision has been announced at the right time, just ahead of five state elections. Parties and candidates, who were going to resort to bribery, would not know what they should do with that money now," he said. "My only fear is that a parallel money laundering industry will develop. The government must guard against that."
The PM's move was well timed in another sense as well. Writing in Scroll, Devangshu Datta has pointed out that demonetisation ahead of five state polls gives the Bharatiya Janata Party "an obvious advantage" given that political parties can accept donations from abroad and the BJP has a major outreach to non-resident Indians.
Datta also noted that various Hindutva groups campaign for the BJP without the party having to foot the bill. "This move will certainly hurt cash-intensive political parties, which have undeclared trunkfuls of cash," he wrote.
In an interview with Quartz India, Milan Vaishnav, a senior associate in the South Asia program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, drew a historical analogy to the time when Indira Gandhi banned corporate donations to political parties, hoping to choke up the money going to the Swatantra Party and the Jan Sangh.
"But the Congress could find other ways — either extort from businesses or get money through other channels. So it was a politically savvy move but didn't do much to deal with the underlying issues," he said. "This (Modi's) move has greater potential than that."
But where there is a will, there is a way, and that holds true for bribery too. As Vaishnav puts it, "parties are very good and very smart about adapting." The key is going cashless, one way or other other. It could mean more food, drinks and other material goods as bribe, or carrying out new-age cashless transactions.
An election just around the bend could be just what is needed by candidates who have money stashed away. Not only can they get rid of their currency attacks before they become totally worthless, but in the process they can also bribe to buy votes.
For instance, there are reports of demonetized money being distributed by candidates among voters in Thiruparankundram Assembly constituency in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, where a by-election is scheduled for 19 November. M. Thiagarajan, a resident of Thiruparankundram town, told the Hindu that two candidates had already distributed notes in his neighbourhood.
"With the ban on Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 currencies, there is a strong rumour now that there will be another round of distribution," he said.
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