Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | Electoral bribery and the best way to stop it

Terms like “carnivalesque" and “festival of democracy" are routinely evoked for Indian elections, but what happens when the revelry implied therein goes too far for the country’s good? According to Election Commission (EC) data compiled over the span of this year’s election season, seizures of illicit intoxicants, cash and gold have been vastly higher than before. Attempts to bribe voters, it would seem, have not only been part and parcel of the fiesta, but the offerings being dangled have been juicier. The value of all the bottles of liquor, packets of narcotics, wads of currency and biscuits of shiny metal in electoral service recovered by the authorities is estimated at 3,458.7 crore, several times what was seized during the general elections of 2014. Cash seizures were up 181.3 %, while alcohol volumes have risen 15.9% and narcotic quantities have shot up 355.6% in five years. The drugs alone were worth more than all the cash that was seized this year. If so much of it was caught, how much might have gotten away? It’s an unsettling question indeed.

A closer examination of this year’s data reveals that five states accounted for the bulk of all seizures. Tamil Nadu stands out with a share of 27.5% of the total by value, followed by Gujarat with about 16%, Delhi with 12.3%, Punjab with 8.2% and Andhra Pradesh with 6.6%. While anecdotal tales of voter bribery—or episodes of pre-poll giveaways—are legion in some of these states, they have little in common by way of electoral dynamics. Levels of political competition have been consistently high across the country, for example, and there is no reason to suppose that one state’s electorate would have been more amenable to such bribery than another’s. Still, some variations are clear. In Gujarat, Punjab and Delhi, drugs were the most valuable part of the haul; in Tamil Nadu, gold and silver were favoured as a ballot lure; and in Andhra Pradesh, currency notes were apparently expected to take on some of the canvassing burden.

Hasty conclusions on the nature of politics in these states, however, are best resisted. The data merely relates to seizures, and there is no way of knowing whether their higher rates reflect greater use of these devious methods or better vigilance by the authorities. The same goes for the higher all-India figure of seizures this year. It could simply be that the EC, police and other departments have done a better job. The Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs had specifically directed tax officials to share information with other government agencies on a real-time basis so that raids could be carried out. As with all such matters, partisan action is easy to suspect. Like demonetization—which has not stopped cash from being used like poll confetti—the axe of the authorities may have fallen harder on some than on others. But the point is that offering people material inducements for their votes is against the law. Such bribery is a blight on our democracy and perverts the very purpose of elections. To rid ourselves of the problem, however, we cannot rely on the conscience of politicians. It’s ultimately for voters to send them a clear signal that their votes cannot be bought. Let’s hope they already have.

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