India seizes cash, booze and gold in bid to stop vote buying

$488m worth of handouts confiscated as 'muscle power' gives way to 'money power'

NEW DELHI • India's enforcement agencies have so far seized cash, liquor, drugs, gold and other contraband worth 25 billion rupees (S$488 million) as the country's polling gets under way, already double the value of goods seized in the entire 2014 elections.

They are confiscating as much as 1 billion rupees in cash and goods each day, as offenders use ambulances and other vehicles fitted with flashing lights to carry cash and give handouts in lunch boxes to lure voters.

The Election Commission's observers, surveillance teams and enforcement agencies raid airports, highways, railway stations, hotels and farm houses if there is a suspicion of illegal money.

They keep watch on financial brokers, cash couriers and pawn brokers engaged in the movement of cash, check vehicles crossing state borders and open bags on buses to search for bribes in order to ensure a fair vote.

"It is becoming a menace and assuming alarming proportions - it is a national malady,'' said Mr V. S. Sampath, a former chief election commissioner. "It also shows how people are placing more faith on money than policies and programmes."

The cat-and-mouse game between election commission officials and offenders happens because small handouts mean a lot to people in a country where a quarter of the population still lives on less than US$2 (S$2.70) per day.

Politicians also give handouts such as petrol, free meals, umbrellas and torches to stay below the permitted spending limit by a candidate - a maximum 7 million rupees, or the price of Jaguar's top luxury car model in India.

The cat-and-mouse game between election commission officials and offenders happens because small handouts mean a lot to people in a country where a quarter of the population still lives on less than US$2 (S$2.70) per day.

These are on top of the publicly declared freebies - from smartphones to Wi-Fi, and bicycles to pressure cookers - provided by the political parties as part of their campaign promises.

Acceptance of money to vote or not to vote for a candidate is punishable with prison terms, fines or both. In 2014, the Election Commission seized 12 billion rupees worth of cash and contraband.

Political parties previously used physical intimidation or "muscle power" to get voters to the ballot box; now they use "money power", said Ms Sheyphali Saran, spokesman for the polls watchdog.

MONEY POLITICS

The Election Commission is concerned about the fact that the abuse of money is increasingly becoming a major challenge. Instances of violations have increased but, at the same time, the Election Commission has increased its surveillance.

MS SHEYPHALI SARAN, spokesman for the polls watchdog, on vote buying.

"The Election Commission is concerned about the fact that the abuse of money is increasingly becoming a major challenge,'' Ms Saran said. "Instances of violations have increased but, at the same time, the Election Commission has increased its surveillance.''

This growth in vote buying also means a significant rise in election spending, making it the world's costliest election.

Expenditure is set to rise 40 per cent to US$7 billion, according to the Centre for Media Studies, a New Delhi-based non-government organisation.

"There should be moral and ethical awareness among the voters,'' said Mr Sampath. "The Election Commission alone can't solve it."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2019, with the headline 'India seizes cash, booze and gold in bid to stop vote buying'. Print Edition | Subscribe