How cash-for-votes killed violence: A reporter’s diary

Political parties in Tamil Nadu have the dubious distinction of being the pioneers and masters of the art of buying votes. Though the DMK is ‘credited’ with the ‘Tirumangalam formula’ that ensured a big win for the party in the 2009 bypoll, it was the AIADMK which pioneered the buyout, in the 2003 Sathankulam bypoll. The AMMK stunned the two ‘masters’ in RK Nagar in 2017, taking more than a leaf out of the Big Two’s book (the election commission cancelled the bypoll in April and when it was conducted in December that year, T T V Dhinakaran came up trumps).

We ran a snap poll on Twitter on Sunday and 44% of the first 124 respondents said they would take the cash but it wouldn’t influence their choice of the candidate (48% said they wouldn’t take the money). As photo ID cards for voters and electronic voting machines have brought down the scope of primitive methods of rigging, parties in many states have adopted the Tamil Nadu model. The electoral reforms and cash-for-votes have together ensured a reduction in violence linked to impersonation and booth capturing — something I should confess I, as a reporter, miss.

Flashback. My first close encounter with rigging was in 1991, in Kerala. I was still a student, but had privileged access to some of the communists’ rigging labs in Thiruvananthapuram (my old readers may forgive me for the deja vu). The CPM had an army of men and women who would go to vote with a headful of well-oiled hair on which they wiped the ‘indelible ink’ as soon as it was applied, headed to the nearby party labs where comrades waited with diluted acids that would remove the last stains of the ink and ready the riggers to go to another booth. Some of them cast three or four votes, a few scored half-a-dozen. In the absence of photographs on ID cards and the presence of lousy booth agents of the Congress who wouldn’t do half the groundwork the communists did to know the voters by face, the reds had a free run (in some other places the Congress did the same).

In the polls overwhelmed by the sympathy wave following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the Congress-led UDF won 90 seats against the CPM-led LDF which got 48 seats in the assembly polls. K Karunakaran replaced E K Nayanar as the Kerala chief minister, and all the left’s rigging went in vain. At the Centre, P V Narasimha Rao formed a minority government.

The 1996 general elections presented me better action, this time in Nandyal, Andhra Pradesh, where Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was being challenged by TDP’s Bhuma Nagi Reddy. Nandyal was at the heart of the bloody fields of Rayalaseema whose faction feuds inspired Ram Gopal Varma’s ‘Rakta Charitra’ series (A 2017 report in The Wire quoting police records says 8,465 people including 970 Congress cadres and 560 TDP workers were killed in the region). Nagi Reddy, like other faction leaders, moved around with armed bodyguards.

I was hanging around a polling booth in Nandyal on election day when two Trekkers screeched to a halt and out came burly men with swords and swing bags. A couple of them threw country bombs at the entrance, as if they were breaking coconuts before an auspicious deed. The rest of the gang walked into the booth and sent out the polling officers and booth agents. From a safe distance I watched them leave after about 10 minutes, and gingerly approached the shivering poll officer. “They came to vote,” he said. “And each of them polled a bunch of ballots.” Rao won by a margin of almost one lakh votes, but vacated Nandyal to retain Berhampur. Nagi Reddy won the byelection that followed.

Karunakaran, Nayanar, Narasimha Rao and Nagi Reddy are dead. And our well-funded democracy lives on.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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