It’s the dirty, open secret of Indian politics. Poll-eve use of liquor, clothes and even occasional distribution of money has ceased to raise eyebrows. As reported by Mint on Monday, the phenomenon of cash for votes is now dangerously embedded in the political landscape.

A survey of 18 states by the Centre for Media Studies found that, in the last decade, almost 20% of the electorate had been bribed. Alarmingly, it’s the poor and less well-off citizens who have been massaged the most. Assembly elections in Karnataka in May broke all records: Almost one in two voters was bribed. The percentage of poor bribed was the highest in Andhra Pradesh, with 94% of below-poverty-line voters being given money for votes.

Illustration: Jayachandran Nanu / Mint

To begin with, a candidate who gets into a legislature by bribing citizens will pay attention only to recouping the money he’s spent and try to earn more. He will have little interest in policy debates and is likely to rubber-stamp laws that representatives of special interests want on the statute book. In time, such persons acquire sufficient influence in assemblies to chart the legislative agenda. While economists and political scientists puzzle over the link between the quality of governance and growth, a sordid drama is being enacted before their eyes.

Voting is the allocative mechanism for politics. It should not be turned into a market where votes are purchased. Market allocation cannot work efficiently in politics: the nature of the two processes is very different. For example, laws and policies cannot be auctioned off to the highest bidder in the manner of, say, the radio frequency spectrum. The process, instead of being efficient, will exclude a majority of citizens. This violates the biggest goal of politics: welfare of the largest possible number of citizens. What makes the allocation bad is that voters who are bribed (such as the poor) do not get legislation that will give them a better life; the benefits accrue to those who pay nothing for the votes. Transporters, miners, real estate developers and others corner all the benefits of laws and rules designed and created for them. Unfortunately, this regressive process has advanced greatly in India.

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