CHENNAI: Bribing voters by offering money or material or other allurements is a six decade-old problem in the country, which surfaced in the low-key 1957 general elections to Parliament and in Tamil Nadu, it became more visible in the late 1990s and took a concrete shape in 2003 when by-election to the Sattankulam constituency was held. Later, in 2009, the infamous Thirumangalam formula ruled the roost in that by-election.
The earliest method of bribing voters in mid-1950s was to offer sumptuous meals to the people and later request them to vote in favour of the parties concerned. The Congress, which was in power, came under attack for bribing voters.
Also, this kind of bribing was justified by some. In those days, the income of the daily wage workers and downtrodden people was very less. They cannot afford to lose a day’s job. So, by way of offering meals and Rs 2 or Rs 3 to compensate their income loss, it was done.
The next level of bribing was giving the voters the comfort of reaching the polling booth in vehicle.
Now, much water has flowed under the bridge. Bribing the voters has assumed many forms and the techniques change from election to election as the Election Commission is trying its best to prevent the distribution of money.
Tharasu Shyam, political analyst, recalls, “In 1957, Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar accused the ruling Congress party of offering money to voters and appealed to them not to accept it as it is a sin. Pointing out that people spend Rs 2 to Rs 5 to witness Jallikattu, Thevar said getting Rs 5 or Rs 10 for exercising your franchise is wrong.”
In the 1962 general elections to the State Assembly, the late DMK leader Annadurai too accused the then Congress government of bribing the voters and appealed to the voters not to sell their votes just for Rs 5.
Shyam, a college student in 1967, recalls that Rs 10 was given during the Assembly elections when the Congress was routed and the then Chief Minister K Kamaraj was defeated by a fresher.
“If the people’s anger against the incumbent government is much, they just vote out that government. So, money has its limitations. Earlier, on many occasions, money was offered to only the downtrodden people. Now it has assumed as a organised process. Also, it is being given as an incentive to partymen also to ensure that they reach the polling stations,” he points out.
Asked about the ways to curb this trend of bribing voters, Shyam feels that large-scale bribing was forced only when by-elections are held because such elections have been held as a touchstone for their governance so far.
On the ways to curb this trend, Shyam says: “The State funding of elections is one way to curb bribing the voters. Besides, we have to give up the present first-past-the-post system of voting to proportional representation in vogue in countries like Sri Lanka. By-election should not be held as it breeds bribing of voters. Either the seat should be given to the party of the sitting member or the runner-up in the previous election.
Thirdly, the symbol system should be done away with and instead of numbers should be given as in many foreign countries. For example, our first election in 1952 started with only particular colour for each political party and not with symbols.”
Satta Panchayat Iyakkam general secretary Senthil Arumugam has a different view of checking the trend of bribing voters. “Even if the State funding of elections is implemented, there is no guarantee that the bribing tendency will come down. Even now, despite spending huge money, the candidates of major parties claim that they spent only within the ceiling specified by the EC. So, even after the State funding of elections, this would continue.”
“There is strong belief among the voters that those in the government fail to deliver goods with the tax money paid by the citizens. So, the people think that whatever is offered by the politicians is part of the money swindled from them and there is nothing wrong in taking that,” he adds.
“Generally, the understanding of democracy is very less among our people. The politicians are public servants and they should serve the people. But since our’s is still a developing country and most of the people are economically not very sound, they tend to accept whatever is given. So, the awareness about democracy should be inculcated from the school days. If we catch them young, it can be done,” Arumugam points out.
Further the Election Commission should be given additional powers to punish those bribing the voters or engaging themselves in other violations.
As of now, no such powers are vested with the EC. Anyone can go to court to get a final verdict and it is a long-drawn-out process.
So, the fear of getting punished for bribing voters is not there among the politicians and hence it is continuing.