Buying Elections vs Winning Elections

The Election Commission is India’s second most respected public institution, right behind the Supreme Court. The reputation is well earned; all one needs to do is compare our elections with those of other lower-middle income countries. Electoral results are rarely disputed in India which isn’t the case with most peers. Just in case we forgot, our lower-middle income peers include countries like Sudan, Congo, Honduras, Nicaragua and Pakistan. Not exactly models of Democracy. India’s elections, whatever else the country’s flaws may be, are considered free and fair. Quite remarkable for a nation with such a fractured polity, low income and poor levels of education.

Does the success justify the Election Commission’s methods, though? Consider what elections have become in the last decade and a half. There’s very little campaigning on the street. Political graffiti on the street vanish during elections. It’s now possible to live in a middle class neighborhood in an Indian city and not encounter any campaigning in the campaign period. Whom does this affect? Surely, the small sub-regional political party or the independent candidate. They depend on support on the street to get their message across. But the Election Commission by banning graffiti on walls, even on private walls, has disadvantaged the smaller players. And, the opposition. After all, conventional wisdom is that the incumbent needs less of political discourse while the opposition needs more of it to win an election.

The other most discussed aspect of the recent elections in Tamil Nadu was distribution of cash to voters. The Election Commission has even stopped the elections in two of the 234 constituencies, citing distribution of cash. It’s obviously illegal for a candidate to buy votes. But does that translate to the warrant-less searches that the Election Commission conducts? The irony of suspending the very rights the process aims to guarantee for the purpose of the said process takes some restating.

The Election Commission, at least its Tamil Nadu arm, also said something to the effect of selling one’s vote makes one liable to criminal prosecution. One is tempted to auction off one’s vote on eBay just to annoy the Election Commission’s authoritarianism.

Let’s consider the practice voters being given cash to vote. Firstly, this phenomenon is of recent vintage. There may have been instances of some voters being given some money earlier, but the organized and targeted ways in which Tamil voters are given cash is only 15 or so years old. Incidentally, this is also the period in which the Election Commission has capped constituency level expenditure by the candidate and enforced it with maniacal self-righteousness. The official expenditure limit for candidates contesting an Assembly Election is 16 Lakhs. That’s atrociously low. Most weddings in middle class households cost more. That being the case, and given most candidates who contest elections are generally wealthy, is it any surprise that expenditure above the prescribed paltry limit goes as cash bribes to voters? The overzealous monitoring of the expenditure and making sure official limits aren’t exceeded is a direct contributor for cash distribution. That being the case, the Election Commission then spending ever more resources in violating the rights of ever more people by subjecting them to search without warrant is truly absurd.

A reasonable hypothesis for why cash distribution happens in Tamil Nadu far more than other states is that the state is relatively prosperous and each voter in a given constituency has a much higher impact on the election owing to falling TFR compared to other states. When measured as a probability of impact, the Tamil voter is worth some 1.4 times the median Indian voter. If 20-30% of these voters are targeted for cash distribution, that’s an easy Rs 1,000 per vote for a contestant with a budget of 3-4 crores.

Then there’s the issue of the ethics of accepting such cash. To argue, as the Election Commission has, that voters accepting cash is the reason corrupt politicians exist is to mix cause with effect. Political corruption exists because opportunities for it exist owing to a flawed system. Fixing cash distribution to voters to fix systemic corruption sounds a lot like solving the Kashmir problem by insisting on how maps are to be printed in foreign publications. In a deeply unequal society with a serious structural problem in allocating resources, the one place where the poor get to be treated equal is the ballot box. It therefore also ends up being a place where there’s a trade. The politician’s corruption, in some senses, can be understood as one of seeking rent on behalf of the masses and using that to win their support come elections. To blame the poor in this for seeking their share of resources in a system stacked against them is something only middle class bureaucrats are capable of.

Three former CECs from Madras all live within a 2 Km radius in the City after retiring. They all belong to the same caste, incidentally. Maybe that tells us something.