In the flood of articles interpreting the economic downturn, little attention has been paid to the election scene. What one sees in the media and debates are the grand discussions and alliances, the seat-sharing agreements and the give and take of candidacies, as individuals and parties fight for their space in the sun. Equally fascinating are the new mechanics of election management that are unfolding in the offices of the various parties.
It is fairly clear that the two major parties will each find it difficult to cross the halfway mark, or at best will be marginally over it. The smaller parties, especially those that command a following that can get them up to 10 seats, will be the biggest winners in these elections, for they will be in a position to bargain for the benefits of office. These smaller parties have decided to go all out to take advantage of this opportunity, to bend the processes and voters to their whims, for the rewards this time will be hugely out of proportion to the number of seats they get.
The planning processes of the two major parties are proceeding along expected lines. The selection of candidates is based on past performance, loyalty, local caste factors and influence. There is an overarching media campaign for the manifesto of the party, the exposure of top leaders to as many constituencies as possible, technology outreach through the Internet, TV, media and mobiles, and a major publicity campaign. But even in these parties it is well understood that these elections have to be won at the local level, seat by seat, especially since there is no single major issue that will sway the entire electorate. This election will, therefore, witness a number of innovative approaches.
I have been travelling widely in the southern states, and the structure of the election process that is emerging is quite worrying. There are several approaches that are likely to be used by regional and local parties to ensure victory. One, which is apparently already public knowledge, is a cash grant of Rs10,000 per family for votes, promised in rural areas by a party. In each village and caste grouping, “leaders” have been identified who will be responsible for the distribution of cash and to ensure that the votes are delivered. Failure will entail physical action, or worse.
A second approach, which was used successfully in a recent by-election, is more subtle. In every election booth, there are representatives of the candidates present as witnesses, called polling agents. These people represent the interest of their candidates to see that irregularities do not happen, and are the eyes and ears of each candidate. They have to accept the identity of each voter as he comes in, and only then is the balloting allowed.
Often, the names of these agents are announced only at the end by each party, as a large number have to be deployed to be at every polling booth. The plan is for the party with a lot of cash to buy out the polling agent towards the afternoon, so that they look the other way when irregularities in voting happen. This is practised towards the end of the polling day, to enhance polling in favour of that party.
The drawback is that where the other party is equally strong, in muscle power or money, there are likely to be violent scenes. Local parties, especially those that realize their seats can get them ministerial berths, are gearing up for this eventuality as well.
I expect Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh will witness excesses as never before, as these two are crucial swing states in the south.
In Uttar Pradesh and other states in the Hindi heartland, the tactic of buying up booth agents is not likely to work as village rivalries are so entrenched that such a turncoat booth agent cannot live in peace thereafter. In these states, the victory of the regional parties depends on the fear the candidate can engender in voters, and one can already see, in the nominations announced so far, how “strong” the candidates are.
From the point of view of the economy, apart from the Rs10,000 crore of official spending for the election, I expect an actual spending of no less than four-five times that amount by all the parties put together. Perhaps this will be the first election that will see an all India display of money power as never before. It is only in the urban and better educated areas, and if the younger people turn out to vote in large numbers, that one can see some hope for transparency, clean voting and genuine democratic selection.
Of course, the plus side is that all of this spending will work as a huge fiscal stimulus for the economy in the next six-eight weeks.
S. Narayan is a former finance secretary and economic adviser to the prime minister. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org