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The sensible Indian voter - Outside View by Sidharth Bhatia

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The sensible Indian voter
Apr 16, 2011

"If I stand in elections, I will lose my deposit," said the anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare last week when asked why he did not contest in the polls. "Voters take Rs 100 and a bottle of wine. An election costs Rs 6 crores to 7 crores."

This week, elections in three states have seen record turnouts, ranging from 70-odd percent in Assam to 80 percent in Tamil Nadu. Have all the voters been swayed by freebies and cash incentives, ranging from money to liquor to free laptops for engineering students. In the last elections, the DMK had offered television sets to voters to get them to support the party's candidate; this time, the AIADMK, headed by Jayalalitha got into the game and came up with all kinds of free gifts, including kitchen gadgets, leading some commentators to call this a mixie-juicer election. The last time round in 2006 Jayalalitha had criticised such practices.

The accusations have been flying thick and fast. Jayalalitha wants to know where the DMK got all the money to pay for these gifts. The imputation is clear-this is the windfall of the 2G scam which some of the party's members are said to be involved in.

Yet, even if we consider the possibility that such free gifts and cash do sway voters we have to ask some questions. Firstly, can any amount of incentivisation ensure that no less than 80 percent of the voters turn out on election day and stand for hours in long queues to cast their vote? Second, if every party promises something or the other, doesn't that level the playing field? And most important, what is guarantee that the voter will cast a vote for a party after accepting some cash in an envelope or a bottle of cheap whisky?

The culture of making tall promises is not new. Some parties promise writing off loans, others assure farmers of free power. This kind of freebie culture has played havoc with public finances. Now governments are becoming cautious about such subsidies and inducements, so political parties have gone a step or two further and begun dishing out electronics etc. There are stories of political managers and ward level bosses cajoling, threatening and bribing people into voting for particular candidates with the assurance that the slums would not be demolished; it is a straightforward survival mechanism. But surely bribing 80 percent of the voters in a state is a difficult job.

No, what this attitude of "voters are susceptible to bribery" means is that the masses are incapable of independent thought and are sheep to be led to the slaughter house. How often do we hear educated people say, "what does the ordinary man on the street know."

If past record is anything to go by, the so-called ordinary man and woman knows a lot. In election after election voters in their millions have displayed uncommon sagacity and political wisdom, sending out a strong message to those who take them for granted.

Many such instances come to mind. In 1977, after a long emergency during which the nation is supposed to have moved forward (that was the propaganda of the government), the electorate voted out Indira Gandhi. They loved her but were angry at the way her son and his chamchas had run the country and they were definitely bitter about the subversion of democracy and suspension of individual liberty in those 19 months. Less than two years later, Indira Gandhi was back in power because the politicians who were opposed to her had made a mess of their stint in government.

Since then, there have been so many occasions when individual candidates and political parties which took the voters for granted have suffered in the elections. As recently as 2004, when everyone assumed that the NDA would win easily, the voters sent it packing and voted in the UPA. Now in its second term, the UPA has become complacent and will have to watch out; the voters are not in a happy mood.

Something like that may be happening in the states where elections are being held right now. In Tamil Nadu the voters are unhappy at the corruption of the DMK; will they vote it out? In West Bengal, the left has ruled for over 30 years without any opposition worth the name. If opinion polls are to be believed, this time round Mamata Bannerjee's Trinamool Congress will send them packing into the Bay of Bengal.

The moral of the story is clear-you can try to bribe or threaten voters, but you cannot fool them. The high turnout in state elections is a clear sign that some surprises are in store for many politicians. That is the strength of Indian democracy which we must celebrate.

This article is written by Sidharth Bhatia. Sidharth is a senior Indian journalist who has worked in print, broadcast and online media. He is a columnist and regular commentator on current affairs for several leading publications and on national television. This article was first posted on Personalfn.

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